Look out! Object in road ahead

Rob Siegel

It was probably 25 years ago. I was driving my gorgeous red 1973 BMW 3.0CSi southbound on Route 3 toward Weymouth, Massachusetts, to look at a Suburban—the first in a long line of ’Burbs I used to take the family on an extended beach vacation. I wouldn’t call Route 3 a curvy road, but there are a few sweeping bends in it. I was in the left lane, traveling with a good head of steam during a break in Friday Cape Cod traffic when I came around one of those bends to find a fender in the middle of my lane.

My response to seeing it was probably similar to your response to reading it—disbelief. But eventually my brain made the turn from “that’s not supposed to be there” to “WHOA, DUDE, YOU NEED TO DO SOMETHING RIGHT FREAKING NOW!”

I stood on the brakes and quickly checked to see if there was room on my right to change lanes. There was. I cut right but clipped the fender with my left front wheel. It instantly sliced the tire open. I nearly lost control of the car. It did a big ugly slide in one direction. I corrected it. The car slid the other way. I corrected it again. I somehow managed to get the car to the shoulder without hitting anyone. I then sat in the car and hyperventilated for a minute and tried to stop my hands from shaking.

Eventually, when I stopped trembling, I got out of the car and looked at the left front corner. Miraculously, there was no sheet metal damaged, but the tire was gashed wide open. I had a spare in the trunk, as well as the car’s original jack and lug wrench. These days, I’d never even consider using one of those rickety original jacks that sits in a notch in a rust-prone rocker panel, particularly on a car this valuable, but both I and the car were younger. However, it had been instilled in me never to change a tire on a highway unless you have absolutely no alternative—that it’s always better and safer to limp your way in the breakdown lane to the exit and change it somewhere where cars aren’t flying past you at 70 mph. So I tried to make a low-speed whubba-whubba-whubba limp to the next exit.

Thing is, have you ever actually tried to limp a car along on a flat tire? I never had until then. You can’t. It doesn’t work. It’s one thing if a tire has a slow leak, but if it’s dead flat due to a catastrophic failure like a sidewall impact, the tire rapidly becomes a flappy rubbery mess that resists rotating and does nothing to protect the wheel. In my case, in less than a quarter of a mile, the tire was literally smoldering. I pulled over as far as I could in the breakdown lane and swapped on the spare as quickly as I could.

Rob Siegel - Object in Road Ahead - Airport_bus_gets_flat_(10056557)
Your ability to continue driving on a flat tire is much less than you might think. gloom/Wiki Commons

In addition to giving me newfound knowledge that you can’t simply drive on a flat tire, the episode made me hyper-aware of the possibility that a trip can be interrupted suddenly and quite rudely by objects in the road. Anyone who’s road-tripped a car has seen stuff either flying off cars or already on the highway.

If you search YouTube for “object in road,” you’ll see a surprising number of videos, including this one, credited to The New York Post, from which the cover photo of this piece was captured, and this jarring compilation. It’s easy to chuckle at the videos showing interstate traffic stopping for ducks, or errant wheels rolling down a highway, but it’s no laughing matter. AAA reports that road debris was found to be a factor in more than 200,000 police-reported crashes over a three-year span. These crashes led to approximately 39,000 injuries and 500 deaths.

Fortunately, these days, due to the wonders of the phone app Waze, you’re often alerted to the presence of road debris with the laconic audio statement “object in road ahead.” Like any alert, though, it’s easy to become inured to its presence and not take it seriously. However, while the overwhelming majority of “object in road ahead” alerts are due to small dead animals and pieces of shredded truck tires, every once in a while the warning can avert major damage.

About four years ago, I was driving my 1979 Euro 635CSi down to Southeast Sharkfest in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when Waze issued its gentle “object on road ahead” warning. Most of the route to Chattanooga is on I-81, one of the most heavily-trucked routes in the country, so I assumed this was probably yet another chunk of a truck tire. Still, I went into Terminator Mode, my eyes methodically scanning left and right.

And then I saw it. Well, I didn’t see it, at least not initially. I saw the effect it had on flowing traffic, with cars parting left and right like the Red Sea. I squeezed right, and as I approached it, couldn’t believe my eyes.

It was a ladder. A big one. It was taking up almost two of the four lanes.

I recalled Littlefinger, the Machiavellian character in A Game of Thrones, who said “chaos is a ladder,” and thought, dude, you don’t know the half of it.


Rob Siegel’s latest book, The Best of the Hack MechanicTM: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem, is available on Amazon. His other seven books are available here, or you can order personally inscribed copies through his website, www.robsiegel.com.

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