All it took was the lid from an ice machine's cooling unit to cause a serious crash Wednesday on Interstate 15, injuring a police officer on a motorcycle.
"He tumbled and tumbled and tumbled," said Salt Lake City police Sgt. Roger Williams on Thursday, the day after one of his officers hit the highway debris near Kaysville.
"I was sick to my stomach," said Williams, who witnessed the crash.
Coincidentally, state officials were already scheduled to hold a Thursday news conference to discuss the dangers of improperly securing loads for law enforcement and citizen motorists. The SLCPD motor squad was there to stress the importance of securing loads.
Williams' motor squad unit was on a routine training exercise Wednesday on I-15 when the officers rounded a curve at 65 mph and encountered the top of the cooling unit in the roadway.
Most of the squad was able to avoid hitting the debris, but a gust of wind pushed it into one motorcycle. It bounced off that bike and became lodged under the wheel of another, sending that officer tumbling out of control.
Thursday, members of his squad showed his helmet, which was severely dinged up but ultimately helped save the officer from serious head injury. Instead of being killed, the officer, who is the father of two young children, suffered a broken scapula, a broken finger and road rash but is expected to recover.
"This could have been really tragic," Williams said. "It should have been really tragic. We really lucked out here."
Unlike that officer, some motorists haven't been as lucky.
In the past five years, five people have been killed by litter on Utah roadways. In 2012, loose items on roads caused 710 accidents and one fatality, according to the Utah Department of Transportation.
Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Jack Jessop worked that fatality in Box Elder County. A motorcyclist was killed when he hit a mattress that had come free from a load on I-15.
Kevin Griffin, UDOT's maintenance director, said crews have found just about everything on Utah roadways, from an entertainment center to a kitchen sink, and enough items to furnish an entire living room.
"Unfortunately these things happen more often than people would think," Griffin said. "They could hurt someone or kill someone. Please remember before you leave to secure your load."
During the 2013 legislative session, legislators increased fines for littering on highways and for failing to properly secure loads while operating a vehicle on a highway.
Now, littering or failing to secure loads on a highway can draw a fine of not less than $200 for the first offense. Anyone operating a commercial vehicle who fails to secure a load can expect a fine of at least $500.
Jessop said such debris isn't just dangerous to motorcyclists. He said in one case, a vehicle hit a piece of metal on the road and sent it flying through the windshield of a second vehicle. The metal stopped mere inches from becoming embedded in a woman's chest.
The debris also can cause severe damage to cars and trucks.
Jessop said on a 10-hour shift, he typically responds to three calls reporting debris on Box Elder County roadways. With vehicles traveling highways at up to 80 mph, plus the occasional blind corner, removing debris can be dangerous for troopers or road crews.
He said anyone who loses items from a load should immediately call 911 to report it, rather than just leaving it behind.