TAMPA — Most drivers have heard the alarming thwack of a chunk of road debris suddenly smacking against the windshield.
Nathan Stiles recently heard it on his morning commute through Tampa when his car was pelted by a barrage of stones flying out of an overloaded dump truck at 70 mph. By the time he changed lanes on Interstate 75, his windshield was cracked — again.
It was the third time in a year, and second in two months, that he would have to get it replaced.
"Rocks were piled over the top of the truck. It was coming off the sides," said Stiles, a telecommunications engineer. "Is there just no law out there to protect us from this?"
He and other local drivers being plagued by road debris blame the extensive road work going on around the Tampa Bay area. The owners of windshield repair shops say they've got a point.
"People are complaining about it,'' said Sue Chalmers of Lloyd's Glass, which has locations in Clearwater, Tampa and Brandon. "No matter where you go anymore, somebody's tearing a road up."
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No one keeps statistics for this kind of thing. Car windows can get damaged for any number of reasons — birds, weather, golf balls. But the biggest culprit is random debris kicked up by other cars.
Windshield companies say there's a clear correlation between road work and how many repairs they're doing.
"If there's a lot of construction going on in an area, there's an increase in road debris. That would increase the possibility of windshields being broken," said Paul O'Malley of Diamond Triumph Glass, which has more than 200 locations, including one in Tampa. "Our business is very much like a root canal — people don't want to use us, but they have to."
A lot of streets are torn up around the Tampa Bay area, where an overloaded road grid is struggling to catch up to the demands of population growth. Among others, U.S. 19 and Ulmerton Road in Pinellas County, Interstate 275 and Gandy Boulevard in Tampa, and the cluster of freeways by Tampa International Airport have all turned into vast construction zones.
The result is massive piles of gravel, dirt, sand, asphalt and concrete, with dump trucks hauling it all around.
"A lot of people complain about the rock haulers, although a crack in the glass can come from anything lying in the road," auto glass technician Bob Bush said as he replaced a windshield in the parking lot of a Valrico apartment complex. Like most workers in his industry, he does many of his jobs at customers' homes and workplaces.
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Regarding Nathan Stiles' frustrated question — isn't there some law those rock trucks have to obey?
Yes, there is. Florida statute 316.520 reads: It is the duty of every owner and driver of any vehicle hauling … dirt, sand, lime rock, gravel, silica, or other similar aggregate … to prevent such materials from falling, blowing, or in any way escaping from such vehicle.
State troopers, sheriff's deputies and police officers wrote 3,895 citations for this in 2006 and 4,074 in 2005 — a small number compared with the hundreds of thousands of tickets written for more routine violations.
The Florida Trucking Association says companies address this issue in government-mandated training sessions. But officials who enforce Florida's trucking regulations say the problem is haphazard behavior.
Lt. Jeff Frost of the state's Office of Motor Carrier Compliance said, "Those vehicles have to have a close-fitting tarp to contain their load. But many times it's not close-fitting, or it's not maintained well and has tears in it. Or they roll up the tarp to load the dump truck, and they forget to put it back down. Or the tarp is down but it doesn't contain everything."
His office cited truckers for not securing their loads in 6,200 inspections last year.
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You can count Jeff Marshall of Pinellas Park among the drivers who blame road work for the spiderweb glass in their windshields. "I've been nailed twice this year. And it's like every road around here has orange barrels on it," he said.
Those barricades aren't going away soon. Some of the major road projects in this region will continue for years. But highway officials say it's not fair to blame all of the windshield problems on road construction.
"There are rock-hauling trucks on the road for many reasons — conventional construction, parking lots, you name it," said Florida Department of Transportation spokesman John McShaffrey, who recently had a rock damage his windshield.
"I heard it when it hit, but I don't know where it came from. It's a fact of life."
Replacing a windshield costs $250 to $2,500, with the top figure for certain luxury cars, said Dan Pickett, shop manager for Glass Pros of Clearwater. Florida is one of a few states that require insurance to pay the full cost of a new windshield if the driver has comprehensive coverage, not just collision coverage.
Road construction or not, car windows are a steady business.
"If you're driving toward something at 50 or 60 miles per hour," Pickett said, "it doesn't really take much to crack a windshield."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3435.