Robin Abel got the phone call that no parent wants to receive. Her daughter, Maria, was critically injured in an automobile crash in which she hit an object that had fallen off another vehicle.

Things looked dire, and Abel was prepared to donate her daughter’s organs. Miraculously, Maria lived. Since that day 12 years ago, Abel has been talking to anybody who’d listen about the dangers posed by items falling from moving vehicles. She got the ear of the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the State Patrol, which declared last Monday Secure Your Load Day.

“This is a special day,” said Abel, of suburban Seattle. “Some people say it [what happened to Maria] was a freak accident, but it is a frequent problem. To see that somebody is taking this seriously did my heart good. I hope it will inspire others to do the same.”

She also hopes it will inspire all drivers to take time to tie down their loads.

A report from the Government Accountability Office found that there are 51,000 incidents involving unsecured loads in the United States each year, killing 440 people and injuring 10,000.

Already this year in Minnesota, the State Patrol has been called 2,479 times to remove everything from ladders, mattresses and even full-sized plastic playhouses from roadways in the metro area. Statewide, the patrol has had more than 5,000 calls. In the past five years troopers have issued 1,673 unsecured load citations to passenger vehicle drivers and 9,331 warnings.

Danger no matter how small

Minnesota law says all loads must be secured so as not to shift, blow off or come loose, but it does not specify how a load has to be secured. Drivers can use anything from twine and rope to bungee cords or the highly recommended ratchet straps.

“We’ve actually had to take people to Wal-Mart and tell them to get some straps,” said Lt. Tiffani Nielson. “It’s a nominal cost to prevent big issues for you. … Take five minutes and strap it down.”

Mattresses, couches and ladders are among the most common items lost from vehicles, but in the past few weeks MnDOT workers in the metro area have picked up everything from exercise equipment to motor scooters to pickup toppers. Lightweight items such as coolers, luggage and life jackets are also common and just as dangerous. All it takes is a gust of wind or hitting a bump to send an object flying, Nielson said

“Anything more than a couple pounds can be a deadly object,” Nielson said. “At 20 miles per hour, an object weighing just 20 pounds that falls from a vehicle strikes with an impact of half a ton. Think of that impacting your front seat or driver — that can be catastrophic.”

About 40 percent of litter on the nation’s roadways is attributed to unsecured loads, a study from the Washington State Department of Ecology said.

This is a topic we’re likely to be hearing more about now that it has reached the national conversation. Abel has written guidelines on how to properly secure a load accepted by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators and soon to be disseminated to driver’s license agencies in all 50 states this summer.

“Nobody is taught in driving school how to secure a load,” Abel said. “This is a serious safety hazard, and I hope to share this message state to state.”


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