Guest Opinions

Near impalement on Tacoma highway is scary reminder: Secure your loads. No excuses

Most Puget Sound drivers have endured the white-knuckle adventure of dodging freeway debris. Likewise, most motorists have been jolted by a small rock hitting their windshield with the velocity of an Edgar Martinez line drive, chipping or cracking the glass.

Running this gauntlet is part of taking one’s turn behind the wheel, particularly during summer when Americans log the most miles.

But few of us are prepared for worst-case scenarios or frighteningly close calls — for example, the impalement that a driver narrowly escaped last week on westbound State Route 16 in Tacoma.

A metal bar lying on the ground was catapulted through the woman’s windshield, sent airborne by a vehicle ahead of her as both drivers were exiting to Sprague Avenue. While it’s unknown how the bar got on the road, a driver with an unsecured load is almost certainly the culprit.

Miraculously, the woman walked away with a small cut on her leg. But take one look at images of that rod, jutting like a spear through a spiderweb pattern in the shattered windshield, and the conclusion is clear: Carelessly loaded vehicles can do terrible damage and mustn’t be tolerated.

In graphic photos from another near miss last March, a piece of plywood is embedded in a windshield like a hatchet. The lumber flew off a truck and struck a car on state Route 167 near Kent, spraying the driver with glass bits that fortunately only scratched his skin.

State police know unsecured loads are a serious hazard. It’s why June 6 each year is designated “National Secure Your Load Day.” It’s why the Washington State Patrol conducted a 28-day emphasis last spring targeting haulers who don’t take precautions.

It’s a problem that needs vigilance year-round. The AAA Foundation for Safety found that road debris caused an estimated 200,000 crashes across the U.S. from 2011 to 2014, resulting in 39,000 injuries and 500 deaths.

Washingtonians should know better in light of the traumatic story of Maria Federici, which drew national publicity in 2004 and was the impetus for a model state law.

Federici, 24, was driving home from work when particle board from an entertainment center flew out of a rented trailer on I-405 and smashed through her windshield. Disfigured and blinded in both eyes, the Renton woman has undergone years of reconstructive facial surgery.

The trailer’s driver didn’t stop but was later tracked down. His penalty? A traffic citation.

Maria’s law, pushed by Federici’s advocates and adopted by the Legislature in 2005, was designed to prevent such injustices. Today a person driving with an unsecured load causing substantial bodily harm or property damage can be criminally charged. Other states and Congress have followed Washington’s lead.

In 2007, Maria’s law got its first test when two King County men pleaded guilty to improperly securing a metal shelving unit; it caused a traffic pileup that killed a father of five children. Talking to a reporter afterward, Federici said she regretted there was a need for her namesake law.

“I was just hoping it would never happen again,” she said.

And yet it does, again and again. Though the outcome wasn’t tragic this time, the metal rod that flew through a windshield in Tacoma offers a powerful reminder:

Strap down your loads. Cover your truck beds full of gravel, dirt or bark. Attach a red warning flag to lumber or other items (extension ladders, kayaks, etc.) overhanging the back of your vehicle.

Don’t make excuses. Take responsibility. Anything less is a load of you-know-what.

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