Hot Houston Roads Littered with Dangerous Debris

2011 may go on record as the hottest summer Houston has ever seen. August is already on par to break record temperatures set in the 1980's. But that's not the only thing that's breaking around the city. You may have seen one or two of these on your commute today.

Sofa’s, mattresses, chairs, ladders and tires — lots and lots and lots of tires. No, it’s not the local dump it’s Houston’s freeways! Whether you’ve swerved to avoid it or been unlucky enough to hit it, you can’t help but notice the problem of debris on the roads. And no, you’re not imagining it — this year is worse than normal.

"We’ve got about a 20% increase because of the heat of what we’re doing as far as flat tires and mechanical breakdowns right now."

Jeanette Rash is manager of Houston’s Safe Clear program. A service that tows vehicles in trouble off the city’s roadways and out of harm’s way. Rash says any time temperatures soar above one hundred is a busy time for tow trucks. With a seemingly endless number of those days this month, she knows tires are bearing the brunt of the heat.

"My drivers are having to check their own tire pressure every couple of days, and I don’t think the average citizen would even think about tire pressure being an issue because of the heat."

Rash’s warning applies to the average freeway driver, but especially to those in 18-wheelers.

"That was a ladder. Used to be a ladder."

Teresa Hanson
Teresa Hanson holding an example of road debris

Teresa Hanson is responsible for roadway trash pickup for the Texas Department of Transportation. She says while it’s hard to pin point exactly where the added tire debris is coming from 18-wheelers are probably the worst offenders.

"Because the heat of the pavement on the tires causes the 18-wheeler tires to blow and then you’ve got all that rubber, we call ‘em alligators all over the road and it’s from the heat."

Hanson’s been working with TxDOT for about five years. She works alone driving a large steel cage truck to store the trash. It’s probably about 120 degrees on the concrete freeway and she’s wearing a hard hat, steel-toed boots, jeans and a hi-vis jacket. Sometimes even these aren’t enough to protect her. 

"They get to lookin at me pickin up the debris and not payin attention. There’s been times I’ve had to jump in the truck or jump over the wall to keep from a near miss."

Danny Perez with TxDOT admits Hanson’s job is treacherous but with 1.1 billion pieces of freeway litter statewide recorded in 2009, someone has to do it.

The worst section is Central Houston which covers connections between I-45, US-59, 610 I-10 and some parts of Highway 288. For emergency situations, like a sofa in the middle of the freeway, TxDOT have crews on standby. Perez says it’s a trash service that doesn’t come cheap.

"For Central Houston maintenance, which is inside the loop, it’s about $93,000 — that’s the 610, and other freeways it's $119,000."

Starting September 1st TxDOT will increase their contractor work load in Central Houston to deal with the added trash build up.

Perez hopes this will go some way toward keeping the freeways clear. But he also wants to remind drivers to keep their trash to themselves, tie down truck-loads and above all “Don’t Mess With Texas.”

Bio photo of Edel Howlin

Edel Howlin

Producer, Houston Matters

Edel is a producer on Houston Matters and reporter for PBS’s Newshour Weekend...