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Dear LAist: What Happens To Orphaned Bumpers On The Side Of The Road?

A Caltrans worker picks up some cardboard and loads it into the debris vehicle during a sweeping operation on the westbound 134 Freeway. (LAist/Lori Galarreta)
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We spend A LOT of time in our cars. According to a study by INRIX, the transportation analytics company, Angelenos lose about 102 hours a year sitting in our cars during congestion.

During those 102 hours, we're bound to notice a few things other than the river of brake lights in front of us. Sometimes whole mattresses, rolls of carpet or ladders can be spotted on or along L.A. freeways, but probably the most common roadside attraction is the car bumper.

"Why are bumpers often left on the side of the freeway after an accident?" asked KPCC listener Rachael Macias. "Everything else is often cleaned up."

Turns out there are a few different ways car bumpers are removed from the sides of freeways and roads -- and a few reasons they sometimes get missed. We tagged along with a road crew from the California Department of Transportation to learn more.

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A caravan of Caltrans vehicles works to clear debris from the 134 Freeway in Glendale. (Lori Galarreta/LAist)

Eric Chatham's workday starts just after rush hour around 9 a.m. He's the active highway maintenance lead worker at Caltrans, which means he's part of the routine sweeping operations the department does.

On this particular morning, the Caltrans Altadena maintenance station was sweeping the HOV lane on the westbound 134 Freeway. A caravan of Caltrans vehicles, ranging in sizes from standard to huge, moves at a glacial five miles per hour while commuter traffic wooshes by.

"We wear reflective clothing that can alert motorists during day or night," Chatham said in an interview with KPCC's Take Two. "We wear safety glasses, we wear safety gloves, as well as proper footwear."

Sweeping our freeways is a six-car, slow-moving operation. The first line of defense is a debris vehicle that often picks up larger items that might damage the sweepers that follow. It's this vehicle crew that will pick up bumpers when they come across them.

Two large sweeper vehicles are next in the lineup, followed by a back-up vehicle that basically serves as a protector for the sweepers, followed by a California Highway Patrol car that's working as a safety escort to slow traffic. Then, much further back, an advanced warning vehicle lets drivers know there's road work ahead with signage and flares.

These routine sweeps are one of three ways bumpers get picked up off SoCal freeways. The second way is by civilians calling it in. So, if you keep seeing a bumper on the side of the road, chances are Caltrans doesn't know about it. If it's serious you can report it by calling 911 or by submitting a customer service request on their website.

The third and final way bumpers are scooped off the road is by being called in by CHP officers. Often, CHP responds to a crash scene and quickly moves the collision over to the shoulder of the road. Debris is promptly swept to the side as well in order to get traffic flowing again. Sometimes that includes a detached bumper.

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CHP officers responding to the scene phone it into Caltrans for pick-up. However, it's not unusual for drivers to try and deal with the collision on their own, especially if it's just a fender bender. If that's the case, CHP isn't called to the scene and bumpers are often forgotten and left behind to become a roadside eyesore.


Piles of bumpers at the Caltrans Altadena maintenance yard collected during the rainstorms in early January 2019. (LAist/Lori Galarreta)

After bumpers are picked up off the side of the road, they're brought to the respective Caltrans maintenance yard. In the case of our ride-along, that meant the Altadena yard, which collects debris from Pasadena through Glendale and all the way up to Highway 39.

"In this area, you won't see as many," said Steve Wells, a Caltrans area superintendent. "But in downtown, you'll see a lot more bumpers."

Consider this a sort of bumper purgatory. They only have 30 days to be claimed. After that, they're disposed of.

"We pick up a lot of the things on the freeway," said Wells, "People will call us, and we'll have it because we will hold it. But bumpers aren't usually the things they're after."

So the next time you see a bumper, mattress or other debris on the road and wonder why it hasn't been picked up, remember: it's possible no one has reported it to Caltrans. That means you have a chance to be a true American highway hero. We salute you.

Have another question you want us to look into? Ask it below.

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