Last summer, I was driving 70 mph when I saw three huge rocks in front of me on the highway. The semi truck ahead of me had straddled them easily but blocked my view. I tried to swerve, but a car was fast approaching, so I was forced to hit the rocks. While I didn’t get hurt or hit another vehicle, the collision caused over $3,000 in damage to my car and put an at-fault accident on my record.

Incidents like this are common: Road debris factors into more than 50,000 crashes reported to police every year, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

These types of crashes are four times as likely to occur on interstate highways, and about 37of deaths in these crashes are caused by drivers swerving to avoid debris. The good news: many car navigation systems or apps such as Waze will alert you to objects in the road.

“Anything could be out there, whether it’s a mattress or rocks or a spare tire in the road,” says William Van Tassel, manager of driver training programs for AAA.

Read on to learn about the most common types of objects you’ll encounter on the roadways and how to avoid road debris collisions by using our tips from driving experts.

Road Debris: A Driving Danger

Crashes involving objects other than vehicles can be divided into two categories: collisions with fixed objects, such as telephone poles, trees or guardrails, and collisions with non-fixed objects, also known as road debris.

Road debris often falls off vehicles with non-professional drivers behind the wheel. Those drivers “may not always be the best at securing loads,” Van Tassel says.

Here are just some examples of objects you might encounter on a street, road or highway:

  • A tree branch that blows off during a storm.
  • A chair, couch or table that falls off a truck.
  • A tire that flies off a vehicle.
  • A loose piece of metal that comes off a car.

These objects can create scary and dangerous driving situations. In one case, a loose tire flew off a pick-up truck and hit a car, causing it to go airborne and roll on a busy highway.

Fortunately, crashes like this are largely preventable: Two-thirds are caused by either faulty vehicle maintenance or an improperly secured load, according to AAA.

Driving Tips: 6 Ways to Avoid Hazards

The best way to stay safe from unexpected items in the road is to avoid colliding with them — or having to swerve quickly to avoid them. Here are five driving tips to help you steer clear of collisions with road debris.


Stay focused on the road

Distractions can take your attention off the road and cause you to miss debris until it’s too late. “Some of these are obvious, like using a cell phone, eating a sandwich or doing your makeup, but there are other dangerous distractions, like talking to a passenger in your vehicle or even getting lost in your thoughts while driving,” says Joe Young, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “It’s really important to focus on the road.”


Look out for risky situations

Make it a habit to keep an eye out for risky situations at all times. This can help you spot a potential hazard such as an unsecured load, or a loose panel on another vehicle, before it becomes road debris. “If you do see a risky situation, like a truck ahead of you with a trailer full of furniture, back way off,” Van Tassel says.


Keep space around your car

Driving safety experts call this leaving a “donut of space” around you. It gives you room to move over, and the confidence that it’s safe to do so, if you spot an object on the road. “It’s really hard to hit something if you have space around you,” Van Tassel says.


Keep your eyes on the road

Use a driving technique known as scanning to help prevent tunnel vision on the road and spot hazards. Look at least a quarter mile ahead of you, briefly look to the left and right of the roadway, and look at your rear and side mirrors every five to eight seconds. Watch for brake lights or vehicles making sudden lane changes, Van Tassel says: “Vehicles around you give all sorts of fantastic clues to trouble ahead.”


Maintain your distance

If the vehicle in front of you suddenly brakes for road debris, you’ll need space to brake to avoid a crash. The National Safety Council recommends giving yourself three seconds of distance from the vehicle in front of you, plus one extra second for every less-than-ideal condition. For example, if you’re stressed about work and it’s raining lightly, allow five seconds of following distance. It takes time to notice a hazard, react and stop. “From 60 mph to zero, you’re looking at 120 to 150 feet of braking distance,” Young says. “That’s significant — it’s about half the length of a football field.”


Stay on top of maintenance

Follow the routine maintenance schedule recommended for your vehicle, and do regular oil changes and tire checks. Sign up with NHTSA to get alerts of early warning reports that vehicle and equipment manufacturers must submit for potential problems with certain vehicles. And finally, get rattling sounds or other odd noises checked out as they could signal a loose panel or part on your vehicle — and these are one of the main sources of road debris.

How to Handle Road Debris

If you see debris that you can’t avoid, you have to make a quick decision.

“You have three choices,” Van Tassel says. “You can slow down and stop, if possible. You can steer around the object if there’s room, even if you may need to go off road. Or you can take the hit.”

Even if you can’t stop completely, slow down; that’s better than hitting an object at full speed, Van Tassel says. If the road debris is small, you may even be able to slow down and straddle it with your car. That could keep your tires intact and allow you to get to your destination safely.

Debris is a big problem on roads, but you can keep yourself and others safe by following a routine maintenance schedule for your vehicle, properly securing anything you transport and following these driving safety tips.

Have you ever had a near-miss or a collision with an object in the road? Leave a comment to share your story and your own driving safety tips.