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Cleaning up highway debris no easy task

Cleanup crews go out in a pickup truck to retrieve objects. On a smaller highway, it’s often enough to put out a sign warning of road work ahead.

A crash truck diverts traffic on the highway so crews can clean up debris.

Jil Mcintosh/For Metro

A crash truck diverts traffic on the highway so crews can clean up debris.

If something can go in or on a truck or trailer, then it can also fall off it. That can pose a serious hazard to other motorists, but it can be just as dangerous for the crews whose job it is to clean the highway up.

“It’s really about traffic control, and then picking up the object after the traffic is controlled,” says Bob Doupe, maintenance superintendent for the Ministry of Transportation’s office in Whitby, Ont. “It’s done in a manner that’s also safer for the travelling public.”

Cleanup crews go out in a pickup truck to retrieve objects. On a smaller highway, it’s often enough to put out a sign warning of road work ahead.

But on a multi-lane highway, there must also be a crash truck. In addition to its flashing lights and directional arrow, it also has a crash attenuator, which sticks out the back and absorbs energy if a vehicle runs into it. This happens with surprising frequency. “Being in those crash trucks is a dangerous job,” Doupe says.

The crash truck diverts traffic out of the lane so the crew can pick up the debris. The operation always starts at the shoulder, so cars can only pass the crew on one side. If the item is in a middle lane, extra crash trucks or police officers will be called in to close successive lanes, starting at the shoulder.

If it’s too far out from the shoulder, or if the debris covers too many lanes, the crash trucks and police will initiate a “rolling stop.” Starting well ahead of the problem, they’ll block all lanes by driving very slowly and keeping traffic behind them until the crew has the mess cleaned up.

This can present a problem, Doupe says, when drivers at the back of the jam finally get to the trouble spot. They don’t see the debris that’s been cleaned up, and think that workers have closed the highway for nothing. “Sometimes they’ll throw stuff at the crew, in addition to the insults,” he says.

If you see debris on the road, call the police, who will alert the cleanup crews. And if something falls off your vehicle, never run into traffic to pick it up. People have been killed doing that, even when objects are close to the shoulder, so call for help and wait for the crew to show up.

Bob Doupe of Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation shows some of the items that have been picked up from the highway.

Jil McIntosh/For Metro

Bob Doupe of Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation shows some of the items that have been picked up from the highway.

Recycled or trashed:

• When you see a cleanup crew, slow down, obey the arrows, and give workers plenty of room for safety.

• Unusual objects the crews have picked up include landscaping rocks, a bathtub surround, a cash register, a handgun, and sex toys.

• Road debris is brought back to a depot, where tires and metal go to recycling, and everything else goes to the trash.

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