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Littering is a 'growing concern' along Utah roads. It comes with a staggering cost

Cleanup crews contracted through the Utah Department of Transportation pick up litter and roadside debris along eastbound I-215 between Redwood Road and I-15 in Murray on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. UDOT reports litter cleanup calls are up 28% over the past five years.

Cleanup crews contracted through the Utah Department of Transportation pick up litter and roadside debris along eastbound I-215 between Redwood Road and I-15 in Murray on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. UDOT reports litter cleanup calls are up 28% over the past five years. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — John Gleason knows most people think of littering as either an aesthetic or environmental issue.

It's something that makes the beautiful surroundings next to roads unattractive. It's true, but it goes beyond those two problems.

"It is ugly and it's something we want to prevent, but the more serious issue is it's costing people their lives and it's become a major safety issue on our roads," said Gleason, Utah Department of Transportation spokesman. "It's a growing concern that we have."

The agency says the number of clean-up calls for littering is up 28% over the past five years. It's not just people tossing out their fast-food wrappers or drinks, UDOT has come across couches, chairs, refrigerators, ladders and mattresses over the years that have either been intentionally or accidentally dropped by motorists who failed to secure the items before driving.

The cleanup costs the department about $2 million each year.

The bigger price comes when there isn't time to clean up a mess. Litter causes upwards of 1,800 to 2,000 crashes every year. Over a dozen people have died from debris-related crashes on Utah's roads in the past two years.

For instance, when a catering truck lost its load on Interstate 15 in Davis County last summer, vehicles behind it slowed or came to a stop to avoid the debris on the highway, ultimately ending in a crash that killed two people. There was also a man killed in December because he was struck by a semitruck while he was trying to secure debris that flew off his camping trailer in Salt Lake City.

Utah previously held campaigns in the late-1980s — Don't Waste Utah — that targeted the aesthetic damage caused by litter. It began a new campaign last year aimed at informing Utahns about the public safety component, too.

Gleason said Utahns should start to expect more online or broadcast public service advertisements that tackle the issue in the coming weeks, leading up to the state's "100 Deadliest Days" that begins with Memorial Day weekend. He believes no matter how you perceive the issue, littering has no place in the state.

"We live in one of the most beautiful states around and we want to keep it that way," Gleason said. "And we also want to make sure our roads are as safe as they can be."

"I think we all have to make the commitment, and think, 'What can we do to improve safety on our roads?'" he said. "One of the simplest things we can do is decide to not throw out your fast food bag or candy wrappers and to ... make sure (large items) stay in your vehicle."

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.

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