Florida Artist Creates Sculptures to Expose Road Debris Hazard, Liability

July 16, 2007

Created from pieces of pipe, sheet metal, plastic buckets and traffic barricades found on Florida roads, Ken Andexler’s sculptures have a pointed message: Road debris is dangerous, and it’s everywhere.

The junk that falls off or is tossed from cars and trucks is a hazard on U.S. roads and highways, causing motorists to swerve or hit the debris, resulting in everything from a flat tire to death.

The AAA estimates that vehicle-related road debris causes about 25,000 crashes and 80 to 90 deaths each year in North America. While that accounts for less than 1 percent of all crashes, many observers say it would be even less if people were more careful.

Andexler collects road debris in growing southwest Florida, where commercial and real estate development is the order of the day. He makes sculptures out of chaff he finds, and is starting an anti-litter campaign that uses his art to make a point about the ugliness of road debris.

“It’s my contribution to society in a sense,” said Andexler, a graphic artist.

More than 200 million drivers were licensed in the United States in 2005. Florida and other states implore drivers of commercial vehicles to secure their loads and beg motorists in passenger vehicles to stop dropping litter.

A notable victim of road debris was movie director Alan J. Pakula (“Sophie’s Choice,” “All the President’s Men”). He was killed when a pipe dropped from a truck on New York’s Long Island Expressway was propelled through his windshield in November 1998.

Also that year, a 13-year-old Florida girl spent 12 days in the hospital after she was pierced through the chest and pinned to the seat of her family’s minivan by a 3/4-inch diameter rod – about 30 inches long – that crashed through the windshield. She survived, and her story led to creation of a vehicle road debris task force for three South Florida counties.

The task force met for a few years and developed methods such as conducting awareness classes for law enforcement and adjusting the contracts of the state’s Road Rangers to have them stop and remove dangerous materials, said Florida Department of Transportation spokeswoman Barbara Kelleher. She recommends drivers report hazardous debris and not endanger themselves by venturing onto busy highways to pick it up.

Engineer Gerry Forbes, who did a 2004 study on road debris for the AAA, notes that even the smallest items can cause a crash. He found an instance where a tube of lip balm that fell from a motorcycle led to an accident when the bike’s driver slowed to turn around and retrieve the tube – causing drivers to swerve.

“The thing is, it’s fixable,” said Forbes, president of Intus Road Safety Engineering in Burlington, Ontario. “It’s easy for people to take a few minutes at the beginning of their trip to make their loads secure.”

State transportation officials spend millions collecting road debris in South Florida. On Interstate 95 in Palm Beach County, debris removal costs the department more than $900,000 a year.

Kelleher said improvements in technology, such as the widespread use of cell phones, has allowed drivers to more easily report highway hazards. But most experts say the best way to lessen the impact of vehicle-related debris is to raise awareness.

Enter Andexler, the activist artist.

He regularly stops his car on the side of southwest Florida’s roads to snatch all kinds of debris – wood saws, cell phones, broken drill bits, torn tire treads, trays of food. In the past two years he’s collected more than 10,000 pieces – carrying some of the larger junk in his white van.

“I grew up in the country,” said Andexler, who was raised in Auburn Township, Ohio, and moved to Naples in 1989. “We were taught not to throw things out.”

He said he’s always picked up road debris, but one day he decided to make something useful out of the junk. The sculptures that resulted from his artistic vision are unusual but clearly utilitarian. They are composed of tools such as screwdrivers and saws, which Andexler uses to teach schoolchildren about road debris. He also made a basket out of cigarette butts and heavy-duty glue.

He notes that debris not only presents dangers for drivers but also the environment. Contaminants such as cans of paint and oil can potentially leak into the ground or canals, polluting the water supply.

Andexler’s sculptures have been displayed at museums and arts centers, and he plans to travel to schools and make public appearances in Florida to spread his message about road safety.

“Something spiritual is happening to me,” he said. “The more I get into it the more I love it.”

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