Spring is a time for clean-up. Recently the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) reminded motorists that crews would be on the highways picking up litter again.
Yes, again. Every year our state and local highway departments are cleaning up after citizens who use our roadways as trash cans. You and I know it’s against the law in every state to litter the roads. But those laws are not strong enough and the public danger not great enough to enforce them vigorously.
Let’s be clear, we’re talking about litter, not debris. Most litter is the small stuff—the candy wrapper, the beer can, the plastic bag, the cash register receipt, the cigarette stub. Some litter is the garbage bag, the embarrassing piece of clothing you dare not take home, or other evidence of misconduct.
Debris is different, as I understand it. Debris is what’s left on the road after a storm or an accident. It’s a tree or its limbs, it’s the blown tire, the torn fender, the shattered glass, the ladder that fell off a pickup, the household goods off the top of a car moving a family from here to there.
Litter is an unsightly nuisance capable of clogging drains and causing dangerously flooded areas. Debris is an impediment to safety leading to serious accidents. Litter reminds us of how inconsiderate and uncivilized our neighbors can be. Debris confirms the persistent element of uncertainty in our lives.
INDOT reports spending about $8 million a year to clear litter and debris from our interstates, our federal highways, and our state roads. Counties, cities, and towns take care of the roads they maintain, as best they can.
Upfront, $8 million is not a lot of money in the context of INDOT’s $2.6 billion budget. Yet $8 million is not chump change. What else could that money buy to improve transportation services in this state?
To be clear, the 8.6 tons (910,00 bags) of litter collected in 2019 were not the result of misbehavior by Hoosier drivers alone. We are a state with heavy interstate travel and there is no reason to believe that Hoosiers are any more or less law-abiding when it comes to throwing things out of car or truck windows.
In my more draconian mood, I would recommend the penalties for littering, running red lights, and other vehicular misbehaviors be punished, not by fines or imprisonment, but by the impoundment of the vehicle as well as suspension of the license of the offender.
Littering is just another example of our national malady: disrespect for the law stemming from the absence of a responsible sense of community.