Phew! Plank Impales Windshield, But Not Driver

By Eamon McNiff

Mar 14, 2013 11:54am

Wendy Cobb’s morning commute was usually an uneventful 12 minute ride on a two-lane highway near her home in North Carolina. Except one morning in April 2011, when  Cobb captured one of the scariest split seconds of driving ever recorded.

It began when she found herself driving behind two trucks on the highway.

Watch the full story on “20/20: Highway Confidential” Friday at 10 ET

“The two trucks were staying right beside of each other. They wouldn’t let any of the other cars pass,” Cobb told “20/20″ co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas.

Frustrated, Cobb pulled out her iPhone and began filming the two trucks to capture their bad behavior.

“I really wanted the logo on the side of the one truck. I wanted to know what company that it was,” she said.

As they neared a stoplight, Cobb said, the truck in front of her drove over a long plank lying in the road. The truck’s tires rocketed the plank into the air and directly at Cobb’s windshield.

“I remember having a conversation with myself. It seems like it was that split‑second, but I was telling myself this is not happening, that it’s not coming to my windshield,” she said.

In less than a second, far too little time to evade, the plank smashed through the windshield. It missed Cobb by inches.

“[It] was just the most horrendous noise I have to this day ever heard,” Cobb said.

Luckily, there were no cars behind her, and Cobb was able to pull her car to a stop. Shaken, and without words to express what happened, she simply handed her iPhone to the police officer who soon arrived.

“He said, ‘You realize you almost filmed your own death,’” Cobb said.

Death by road debris is more common than you might think. According to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, road debris causes over 50,000 accidents, 10,000 injuries and 440 deaths per year. Much of the debris are items not properly secured by drivers of cars and trucks.

This was the case with the plank that hit Cobb’s windshield. She said her husband went back after the accident and found several more planks lying along the highway.

Robin Abel is trying to mitigate the problem. In 2009 Abel’s daughter, Maria Federici, was blinded on a Seattle highway after an entertainment center fell off the back of a U-Haul trailer and smashed through her windshield.

“I don’t think that people think about it. I think they assume it’s going to stay in the back of their pickup. But aerodynamics is amazing, and the wind can just pull it up, and then it becomes an actual weapon for someone on the road behind you,” Abel told “20/20.”

Abel went to the prosecutor where her daughter’s incident occurred and was told that what happened wasn’t considered a crime, and there were almost no uniform laws requiring people to properly secure items they were transporting.

“I was stunned. I thought, this can’t be happening. And I just said to him at that point, then we need to change the law for others,” she said.

She helped get a Washington State law passed making it a crime to not secure your load. But Abel wants Congress to pass uniform laws holding people accountable for not properly securing items, and educating the public how to do so.

“When you learn to drive, you need to learn. It’s the same as we put on our seat belt, so tie down everything in the back,” she said.

On March 9 a new bill was passed on the floor of the Washington State House. It requires all trucks that carry dirt, sand and gravel to cover it. Now it moves to the Senate. Abel’s ultimate goal is a national model bill encouraging each state to adopt measures to prevent unsecured loads, including educating citizens on their dangers.

Abel said road debris is also an environmental issue, costing billions of dollars in road clean-up. Most importantly, she said, she is one step closer to reducing a cause of accidents as preventable and devastating as drunk driving.

Watch the full story on “20/20: Highway Confidential” Friday at 10 ET

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