Rules of the Road

What is the law regarding rock chip windshield damage due to unsecured gravel loads?

Question: I have lived in Bellingham for nine years and have received five rock chips on my windshield. Before I moved here I never had a rock chip.

Not coincidentally I see many uncovered gravel trucks on Sunset Drive and Interstate 5, many of them with unused covers. What is the law regarding this and does the State Patrol really enforce this law?

Also, if I know a rock came from a particular truck, is there anything I can do?

Answer: The 2,000-year-old Roman philosopher Seneca is attributed to having said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

From the opposite perspective, bad luck is what happens when lack of preparation meets opportunity.

In your case, someone else’s lack of preparation in properly securing their load resulted in your bad luck, also known as, “In the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The problem with “in the wrong place at the wrong time” is that we’re often not in control of the situation; we’re victim to someone else’s mistake and end up taking five rocks to the windshield in nine years (which is rather unlucky; sorry about that.)

Properly securing a load isn’t just about changing someone else’s luck; it’s also the law.

The Revised Code of Washington uses about 500 words to say that if anything falls off your vehicle while you’re driving on a public road, you broke the law.

Actually, there are some important details in those 500 words, some of them specific to trucks hauling gravel. The law requires that trucks cover their load to prevent spillage.

However, there is an exception. It is not required if there is at least six inches of freeboard — the distance between the top of the truck bed and the highest point where the load touches the bed — so it’s possible that the uncovered gravel trucks you’ve seen are in compliance with the law.

The law also requires that all mud, rocks and other debris be cleaned off the vehicle before driving it on a public road. According to a person in the business, this is where truck drivers sometimes get into trouble (more on that in a bit).

The Washington State Patrol (and other law enforcement agencies) really do enforce this law.

In fact, WSP just wrapped up a four-week emphasis patrol that focused on secure load violations.

I checked with Whatcom County District Court to see how frequently infractions were issued to drivers who don’t properly secure their loads. This would include tickets from Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office and the Washington State Patrol.

As you could expect, the number is small compared to violations like speeding and distracted driving; in the past five years, those two agencies issued 120 infractions for unsecured loads.

That’s both an indication of the frequency of the problem compared to other traffic safety issues and a verification that law enforcement is on the lookout for secured load violations.

As to your question about your options after an incident, I spoke with a person at a local construction company about what happens if they get a call from someone whose windshield was damaged by one of their gravel trucks. He gave me two answers; one based on how the insurance companies handle it, and one based on how their company handles it.

Here’s what I found out:

When a rock falls off a truck and strikes your car without first bouncing on the road or hitting any other object, the truck driver’s insurance takes responsibility.

If the rock hits anything in between coming off the truck and hitting your car, or if it’s picked up from the road and thrown, it’s considered a road hazard, and you or your insurance company would have to take care of it.

If that sounds unsatisfying to you, I’ll let you know that it seemed unsatisfying to the company representative who was telling it to me. He said their company strives to be a good neighbor in their community and makes every effort to make things right, even if their insurance company doesn’t cover it.

Your outcome may be different depending on the company you’re dealing with.

He also said that when a rock comes off a gravel truck, it’s usually because a driver wasn’t thorough in their pre-trip inspection. After picking up a load of gravel, their company expects drivers to walk around the vehicle and remove any stray rocks on fenders, hitches or any other surface where they could later bounce off while driving down the road.

That’s were good preparation makes good luck.

I should point out that the unsecured load law isn’t just for truck drivers. It applies to anyone hauling anything in any vehicle. The consequences range from a $228 fine to, in some cases, criminal charges if the lost load causes damage or injury.

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Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com.
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