Highway debris leads to fatal crashes, expensive cleanup operations every year in Colorado

Problem Solvers

DENVER (KDVR) — Every year, Coloradans lose loved ones because of debris that falls out of vehicles along our highways.

It’s a deadly problem that could impact any of us behind the wheel and an issue that could be prevented by following the law and securing our loads.

The FOX31 Problem Solvers are digging deeper into the worsening issue and seeing which solutions are leading to results.

Every day, Richard Hernandez Jr.’s drive to work takes him through the very spot he lost the most important man of his life: his father. It’s now marked with a sign — a plea to drivers and a name, in memory of Richard “Dick” Hernandez Sr.

“It’s been hard. He was my everything,” Hernandez Jr. said. “Not only mine, my wife, my kids, brother and sisters.”

The one-year anniversary of his death is coming up.

The day before Father’s Day last June, Hernandez Sr. went out for a quick motorcycle ride and found himself behind a pickup truck that was hauling furniture.

“Just a small cushion flew all the way across, and my dad was on his bike and it hit him,” Hernandez Jr. said. “He lost control, veered off into the dirt and hit the sign that has the food places” along the highway.

The flying cushion that killed Hernandez Sr. was just one of more than 2,000 debris incidents that safety crews from the Colorado Department of Transportation worked on in 2020.

“I pretty much would say it’s a daily basis where we are finding debris in the roadway, from small hazards up to sofas and grills,” Sgt. Blake White of the Colorado State Patrol said.

The above map shows a trail of items crews found on the roadway last year. Almost every inch was tarnished by something that should have been strapped down to a car.

“Even a trooper hit this metal rod, lodging it under her patrol car,” White said. “Luckily, she was in an SUV and it didn’t travel further, but it could have easily killed her.”

It is illegal to drive on a Colorado road or highway without properly securing the items you’re hauling. Even if you don’t injure someone after dropping something, you could still face a fine of $35 to $500.

The penalties increase if you do end up hurting someone. That’s when you could end up paying a $300 ticket and spend up to 90 days in prison.

“If you spill something on the highway that results in bodily injury, you are going to be in court,” White said.

The FOX31 Problem Solvers have discovered that while drivers face hefty penalties in Colorado, they get even steeper in other states. For instance, in states like Illinois, drivers face a Class A misdemeanor that can carry a fine of $2,500 and a one-year prison sentence.

Meanwhile, in Louisiana and Mississippi, drivers could face a $500 ticket and up to six months in prison.

“Often times, we just don’t know who dropped it,” White said.

In many cases, the driver either doesn’t realize what happens or doesn’t stick around to take responsibility.

The driver who dropped the cushion that killed Hernandez Sr. didn’t stick around. His son wishes they and every driver would secure their items to avoid splitting up any more families.

“Their ignorance and their laziness took away someone very important,” Hernandez Jr. said. “If they would have taken an extra minute to tie everything down, my dad would still be here.”

The problem is also costly to taxpayers. In the 2020 fiscal year, CDOT spent close to $8 million on debris and litter removal, and $3.5 million of that was spent on Denver highways alone.

In the next part of our series, FOX31’s Nicole Fierro is going to follow one of CDOT’s cleanup crews to find out why this amount of spending is necessary. You can see that story Sunday, June 13 at 9 p.m. on FOX31 News.

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