Driving home on a dark stretch of highway east of Toronto one night, my headlights suddenly illuminated every driver’s worst nightmare: something on the road directly in front of me.

That something was a large leather chair that had obviously fallen off a vehicle, and was now entirely blocking my lane. Fortunately, I was able to safely steer around it, and I called the police and reported it.

I was back a few hours later, and as I’d expected, the highway was clear. But how exactly did that chair “get gone?” After some digging, I discovered it’s a specialized operation that can be as potentially dangerous for the workers cleaning up, as the stuff on the road can be for motorists.

Cleanup on most of the highways in the Greater Toronto Area is coordinated through Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation, and handled by private companies contracted for their service.

“It’s really about traffic control, and then picking up the object after the traffic is controlled,” says Bob Doupe, maintenance superintendent for the Ministry’s office in Durham Region, east of Toronto. “It all revolves around worker safety. You want to make it as safe for the worker as possible.”

Basically, that means diverting traffic out of the affected lanes so workers can go out onto the highway and clear whatever it is in the roadway. And while that may sound simple enough, crews have to deal with drivers who may be speeding, in a hurry, distracted, or just not that good at handling changes to their routine commute.

On a smaller, secondary highway, it’s often sufficient to put out a sign warning of workers ahead. But on a multi-lane highway, in addition to the pickup carrying the cleanup crew, there also has to be a “crash truck.” This carries flashing lights, a sign board with an arrow, and a rear-mounted crash attenuator that sticks out behind the truck and absorbs energy if someone drives into the back of it. And they do, with surprising frequency Doupe says.

“The crash trucks get hit, people go around on the wrong side of them, they don’t pay attention to the arrow. Being in those crash trucks is a dangerous job.”

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The rear crash attenuator absorbs energy if a car hits it

The cleanup always begins at either the left- or right-hand shoulder, where the crew parks the pickup truck they will use to cart away the trash. The crash truck stays behind it, lights flashing and crash attenuator deployed, to divert traffic out of the lane so that workers can clear the obstruction. If the mess is in the first lane adjacent to the shoulder, it usually only takes a single crash truck.

It becomes far more complicated if the debris is in a middle lane, or strewn across several of them. The crews have to close all lanes from the shoulder to the debris, so that drivers can only pass them on one side. They’ll do this by bringing in extra crash trucks or, if necessary, with the help of police. (Doupe stresses the strong relationship with law enforcement; in return, crews will bring out their crash trucks to help close lanes for the police at serious collisions when needed.)

If the mess is bad enough that all lanes are affected, crews will do what’s known as a rolling closure.

“Between the crash trucks and the (police), they’ll block every lane,” Doupe says. They do this well in advance of the problem area, dropping traffic from 100 km/h to about 40 or 50 km/h.

The rolling closure doesn’t end until the highway is completely clear, but that can present another issue. Since drivers caught at the back of the traffic jam may only see the cleanup crew on the side of the road, “they’ll think we’ve closed the highway for nothing,” Doupe says. “Sometimes they’ll throw stuff at the crew, in addition to the insults.”

So how does debris end up on the highway in the first place? In some cases, drivers aren’t aware that something has fallen off. But some know and don’t want to stick around: the fine in Ontario for an unsecured load or a detached part, such as a loose muffler that falls off, can be up to $2,000 for regular drivers, and up to $20,000 for commercial vehicles.

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Doupe with some of the items the crews have picked up

If you spot something on the road, try to avoid it only if it’s safe to do so. Swerving around it can potentially put you in the path of other drivers, or you could end up going off the road. Otherwise, and this may seem counter-intuitive, hit the object.

“Your car will be damaged, but you’ll be safer than if you go in the ditch and roll your vehicle over,” Doupe says.

And if you lose something on the highway, Doupe says to pull over, call the police, and wait for the cleanup crew to show up. People have been killed running out onto the highway to pick up something that’s fallen off, even when the object is close to the shoulder.

Most of the stuff the crews pick up is run-of-the-mill: tires, lumber, lawn furniture and ladders top the list. But of course Doupe has a list of some of the stranger stuff, which includes a refrigerator, a bathtub surround, a truck cap, large landscaping rocks, a cash register, a handgun, and yes, sex toys, including a life-size silicone doll.

Back at the depot, the day’s haul gets sorted. Tires and scrap metal go to recycling, while everything else is discarded as trash. Valuable items generally stay in the yard for a couple of months first to see if someone claims them before they’re thrown out. Roadkill is generally buried at the side of the highway where it’s found, although crews will try to identify pets and notify their owners.

The cleanup crews are always going to be in business, but Bob Doupe would be just as happy if you’d take precautions to cut down their workload. “In hot weather we get a lot of tire debris, and on Sundays we get calls for stuff coming back from the cottage,” he says. “Secure your load. And when you see a crew, pay attention, slow down, follow the arrows, and give them extra room for safety. People don’t realize how dangerous roadwork is.”