Mesa Police Officer Sean Stoddard was on his way to work on a typical day in August 2020, when he spotted a ladder in the road that had fallen off a vehicle on the US 60 in Mesa. Stoddard had begun a traffic stop, but before he could get out of his car to remove the ladder, a distracted driver ran into the back of his patrol vehicle, nearly killing him. He suffered a traumatic brain injury, he was in a coma for weeks, and in the hospital for months.
“I’ve got five kids. All of a sudden, they went without a dad one day. My wife, she went without a husband,” now-retired Officer Stoddard said during a recent Secure Your Load safety event.
“This is a serious situation that can be avoided. It doesn’t have to be the tragic domino effect that happens with this,” Stoddard said. “It’s awful. It’s terrible. It’s life changing,” he said.
Stoddard, who is still in treatment for his injuries nearly three years following the crash, shared his story during a news conference recognizing “Secure Your Load Day.” His comments were made standing in front of the mangled hunk of metal that was once his patrol car, which was trailered to the event as a grim reminder of the dangers of unsecured loads.
A Proclamation to Prevent Tragedies
Governor Katie Hobbs declared June 6, 2023, as Arizona Secure Your Load Day at the request of the Maricopa Association of Governments, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the Arizona Department of Transportation, the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, and Don’t Trash Arizona, a litter education campaign.
During a news conference discussing the dangers of unsecured loads, participants were surrounded by large items that had been removed by Arizona Department of Transportation crews within a two-week period, including a washing machine, hot water heater, mattresses – even a large rabbit hutch.
“Imagine encountering any one of these items while traveling at a high rate of speed,” said Transportation Policy Committee Chair Jack Sellers, Maricopa County supervisor. “Every year, dangerous items like these cost us in terms of lives, crashes, and loss of productivity from time spent stuck in traffic.”
Secure Your Load Day is recognized not just here in our state but also nationally. The date has tragic significance for Arizona. It was on June 6, 2006 – a Father’s Day – when debris came off a truck on a stretch of Hunt Highway. A piece of metal pierced through the windshield of a vehicle being driven by Matthew Reif, killing him. Matthew was only 29 years old.
“Unfortunately, Matthew’s story is not unique,” said Sellers. “In the Maricopa region, in the past 10 years more than 8,000 crashes involving dangerous debris have left 23 people dead and more than 100 incapacitated. All because a driver did not take an extra few minutes to properly secure items on their vehicle.”
Responding to Crashes
Approximately 45 percent of litter on the roadways is debris blowing or falling out of vehicles. Other drivers will swerve to avoid hitting those objects, contributing to crashes.
“Our troopers respond every day to those crashes and other reports of debris,” said Captain Glen Swavely of the Arizona Department of Public Safety. “Help us reach our goal of zero fatalities and injury crashes by calling 9-1-1 if you see hazardous, unsecured loads or debris on the highway.”
“We’ve Seen It All”
The Arizona Department of Transportation’s Incident Response units average 46 calls each week to remove debris from the roadways.
“Washers, refrigerators, large couches, ladders, full-size pickup beds, and even some Christmas trees,” said ADOT State Engineer Greg Byres.
Motorists should call 9-1-1 to report any debris they see in the road.
“Making that call could save someone’s life,” said Byres.
Dangerous debris is not only a huge risk to drivers but also a big danger to DPS troopers, police officers, and ADOT crews who have to remove that debris from the roadways.
Byres noted it isn’t just the big things that cause problems. More than 122-thousand bags of litter were picked up from Valley Freeways in 2022. ADOT says all that trash weighs roughly 1.6 million pounds. All of that cleanup isn’t cheap. Last year it cost Arizona $7.3 million to clean up highways around the state.
Litter Funding at Risk
Litter pickup and sweeping is paid through revenues from Proposition 400, the half cent sales tax for transportation.
“MAG plans to continue this funding in the next round of transportation investments if voters are allowed the opportunity to vote on a proposed extension of the tax pending enabling legislation,” said Supervisor Sellers.
This funding is critical to continuing transportation investments that make our roadways safer.
A Minute Can Save a Lifetime of Grief
Officer Stoddard said his life, and the lives of everyone around him, have changed forever because someone did not take the time to secure their load.
“It’s very selfish not to check the load. Take a moment and prevent a tragedy. Think about someone else.”
Stoddard said his family has forgiven the woman who was on her phone when she crashed into him, noting her life was also forever changed by the crash.
“I’m grateful to be alive. But these challenges can be avoided, and these tragedies can be avoided.”
For tips on securing your load, visit https://donttrashaz.org/Secure-Your-Load.
Sobering Statewide Statistics
Unfortunately, crashes like the one Officer Stoddard survived happen far too often. The statistics are sobering:
- 1,100 debris-related crashes across Arizona in 2022
- Nine deaths in Arizona in 2022
- 4,189 debris-related crashes across Arizona from 2019-2022
- 22 deaths in Arizona from 2019-2022