I-TEAM catches risky drivers with dangerous cargo

Debris littering area roadways could be deadly

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A months-long I-TEAM investigation along local roadways produced stunning results, revealing the dangerous risks some drivers take when hauling ladders, furniture, mattresses, lumber and other large items.     

This carelessness can lead to deadly accidents caused by flying debris that hits other cars or causes drivers to swerve to avoid hitting objects in the road. 

WATCH: Road debris trouble spots, costs

We have learned four local roads have more problems with flying debris than any others in Northeast Florida. 

According to DBI Services, which contracts with the Florida Department of Transportation to collect and dispose of the debris, it picks up debris on these roads more than any others in Duval County:

  • J. Turner Butler Boulevard
  • Arlington Expressway
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway
  • Southside Boulevard   

Another company, Broad Spectrum Jacksonville, contracts with the FDOT to remove road debris from local interstates. That company picks up the most debris from I-295, followed by I-95.  (See the interactive map at bottom of story for a breakdown of how many objects were found on each road.)

Tallying the debris reports

Broad Spectrum received 351 calls reporting unsecured objects lying in the road on either I-295 or I-95 between September and November of 2016. These included:

  • 38 ladders
  • 29 pieces of metal
  • 11 mattresses
  • 40 tires or pieces of tire

Broad Spectrum also clears debris from I-10, J. Turner Butler Boulevard and State Road 9B, where there were 32 reports of unsecured objects in the road in the same three-month period, September to November of 2016. 

  • 5 ladders
  • 8 pieces of metal
  • 5 mattresses
  • 3 tires or pieces of tire

Local driver says she could have died

"I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm going to die,'" explained News4JAX photojournalist, Fernanda Ponce, recalling her thoughts after she ran over a ladder lying in the road that must have fallen out of a truck on the J. Turner Butler Boulevard bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway.
"Out of nowhere, I just see the car in front of me veer to the right and cut the other car off and then suddenly, I just see a ladder in the middle of the road," she said. "There is nowhere I could go, I had to run over it and my tire popped." Ponce said she was afraid her SUV might go over the side of the bridge and into the water.  Fortunately, she was not hurt. The ladder did cause several hundred dollars' worth of damage to her car. 

While she was lucky, in 1999, two others were not. Thomas Honeywell, 42, and passenger, Shelby Sanborn, 29, both died when Honeywell swerved to avoid hitting a ladder on the Buckman Bridge, triggering a wreck that forced Honeywell's pickup truck to flip over the side of the bridge and into the St. Johns River.  

The extension ladder had fallen off the back of another pickup driven by a Yulee man, who was cited for failure to secure a load. A lawsuit was also filed against him on behalf of Honeywell's 2-year-old son.

Semi swerves to avoid mattress

We discovered video of a semi swerving to avoid hitting a mattress in the road on an interstate that does not appear to be in Jacksonville. The truck driver lost control, flipped off the road and burst into flames. The driver died.

"I don't think drivers understand the risk," explained Cody Parham, a supervisor with the Road Rangers program. The Florida Department of Transportation started the service in 1999 to reduce traffic congestion caused by stranded motorists in Jacksonville. Sixteen Road Rangers patrol all the interstates in Duval County: I-295, I-95 from Pecan Park Road to Old St. Augustine Road, and I-10 out to U.S. 301 near Baldwin. More times than not, Road Ranger drivers find themselves darting into traffic to remove debris in an effort to prevent accidents.

"It's dangerous for us to go out there and retrieve it," explained Parham, who said he and other Road Ranger drivers have seen furniture, kitchen appliances, washers, dryers, ladders, and tires in the middle of the road. He has even seen a hot tub.

"Yeah, it was a big hot tub," Parham recalls of the object sitting in a lane of I-295 near Monument Road. "I was able to maneuver the hot tub into the left emergency lane," he explained.  FDOT sent a crew to retrieve it, since the Road Ranger trucks are not always big enough or equipped to haul away debris found in the road.

Securing your load

Parham said for the safety of everyone else on the road, drivers need to be better about securing anything they are hauling. 

"You're going down the road at 60 miles per hour and something falls off in front of you, who knows what's going to happen next," Parham said. He sees drivers taking risks far too often. "I was going down the road the other day and a motorist had a love seat and a mattress in the back of the truck and a mattress was standing up tall. It wasn't tied down. There was an individual standing on the love seat and holding the mattress going down the interstate," he said.

SLIDESHOW: Drivers taking risks carrying cargo

We spotted a pickup truck overflowing with all kinds of metal tools and furniture on Emerson Street. The items were piled in a mound in the bed of the truck, and also in a trailer attached to the pickup. We followed the driver for miles. The truck was so loaded down, it drove under the speed limit as it crossed the Hart Bridge. A long piece of metal could be seen protruding from its left side. 

The driver eventually pulled into a scrap yard, which is where we caught up with him. He was not happy when we started asking him questions about whether his load was safe for other drivers on the road.   

I-TEAM: "I'm Jennifer Waugh, with Channel 4. How are you? Sir, you've got a lot of stuff here and it's not real safe.  Have you noticed, what if this falls out? 
Driver: "It's all strapped down."
I-TEAM: "But you're driving on the road. How is this strapped down? I don't even see any straps."
Driver: "You see these dumb (expletive)?"
I-TEAM:  "What do you just say to me?" 
Driver: "I said, right here." (pointing to straps on the roof of his pickup truck)
I-TEAM: "Did you just curse at me?"
Driver: "No, okay." 
I-TEAM: "So you feel confident..."
Driver: "Leave me alone." 
I-TEAM: "I'm concerned about what could happen..."
Driver: "You're rude, you're a rude woman."
I-TEAM: "How am I being rude? I am just asking you an honest question. I'm a driver who shares the road and I just watched you drive over a bridge with that."
Driver: "Look at all the straps."
I-TEAM: "Do you see this thing that is sticking out on the other side of your trailer?"

The driver then walked away.

We are not naming the driver, but we showed the video to Sgt. Dylan Bryan with the Florida Highway Patrol.  He said it appears the driver committed two traffic violations. He said the bed of the truck and the trailer should have a net covering it to prevent the load from falling out or shifting. While the driver showed us he had a few straps, Sgt. Bryan said the sheer size of the load would have required each item to be individually strapped down. 

The Florida Statutes spell out rules for loads on vehicles, which include a prohibition on any object protruding beyond the left bumper of a vehicle. The metal we saw extended at least a foot. 

READ: Florida Statutes for Loads on Vehicles

Some violations related to loads are considered non-moving traffic violations, while others are considered moving violations. Fines for non-moving violations range from $101 to $116, depending on the county, while moving violation fines range from $151 to 166.  According to FHP, if a dropped load causes injury or death, it becomes a criminal traffic violation, which requires a mandatory court appearance.

Debris found in local roadways

Crews with Broad Spectrum Jacksonville and DBI Services sent us pictures of some of what they have collected from local roadways. For safety reasons, the photos were taken after the items had been cleared from traffic lanes. The interactive map below shows where those items were found. Hover over the dots to see the photo.

Cost to taxpayers

Debris collected by Broad Spectrum and DBI is collected in large trash containers, which are hauled to the local landfill every few weeks for disposal.  The landfill charges these companies per pound of debris.  Based on figures we received from Broad Spectrum and DBI, we calculated landfill disposal fees cost at least $300,000 a year.  These companies contract with the FDOT. 

If you ever see any hazard in the road, you are urged to call *FHP to report it.  Remember, this debris can cause accidents. 

 Breakdown of calls for unsecured items on local roads:

About the Authors:

Jennifer, who anchors The Morning Shows and is part of the I-TEAM, loves working in her hometown of Jacksonville.