Think of the dangers of yard work and we typically think of mower blades, rock shrapnel or ankles lacerated by weed whackers.
But another danger lurks: Yard clippings sprayed onto the street by a mower or blasted onto the road by a leaf blower can have deadly consequences for motorcycle riders.
In June 2019 in Illinois, a man on a motorcycle lost control when he hit some grass clippings in Bureau County. His wife, riding behind him, struck him. The impact threw her off her bike. She died in the hospital two days later.
‘Almost Like Ice’
Grass clippings, especially when they’re moist, slicken the road, according to Josh Witkowski, Illinois legislative coordinator for ABATE, a motorcycle advocacy organization. He points out that grass clippings are about 85 percent water.
“They’re almost like ice,” Witkowski said.
He said motorcycles are far more vulnerable to sliding than cars because bikes have just one drive wheel which needs to stay in contact with the road. The same is true for bicycles.
“If it hits the grass, you’re going to lose control,” he said.
Illinois is one of several states that have laws against spreading lawn clippings into roadways. But Thomas Zeglen, whose wife Cheryl was killed in the Bureau County accident, doesn’t think it’s enough.
“I would like something to be done better than a $50 fine on grass clippings,” he told reporters. “What’s it going to take for Congress or whatever to understand that?”
Zeglen said he will fight for stronger legislation and hopes to rename the state’s grass clipping law as “Cheryl’s Law” to honor his wife.
The man whose mowing led to the accident got a citation and faced a $1,500 fine.
States consider yard clipping laws
Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky are among states considering yard clipping laws. Kentucky’s proposed legislation is the direct result of an April 2019 accident that killed 31-year-old motorcyclist Robert Arron Lee of Graves County. Friends began a petition to outlaw leaving grass clippings on the road.
Nationwide, many communities have ordinances against leaving clippings in streets. Aside from the safety issue, clippings can clog sewer drains and make roadways unsightly.
Typical is Elburn, Ill., which in May reminded its residents of its village ordinance against lawn and shrub clippings in the street.
“We ask all residents and business owners to please take care to ensure that as you cut your grass and shrubs that you don’t blow the clippings out onto the roads,” Police Chief Nicolas Sikora said in a news release. “Those loose grass clippings can cause a motorcyclist or bicyclist to lose control as they ride over them and potentially lead to a crash.” Police will issue citations to violators, the chief said, which carry a fine of $80.
Local Vs. Statewide Enforcement
Tyler Stiles, an attorney for Motorcycle Law Group in North Carolina, thinks statewide laws are more effective than local ordinances, which he says are frequently confusing and inconsistent.
“What we see is a lot of confusion in law enforcement over whether it’s a code enforcement issue or a police matter. A law would create uniformity,” he said.
Stiles admits enforcing such a law would rank low on the priority lists of cops dealing with more serious crimes, but he believes it would at least serve to heighten public awareness of the danger. North Carolina’s lawn clipping proposal died in the 2019 Legislature, but Stiles says his group will likely try again for passage.
Sliding isn’t the only danger of clippings in the street. Witkowski said dried clippings blowing into a biker’s face can obscure his vision or cause injury.
Mowers: Prevent Road Clippings With These Steps
The first step in fixing the issue is for homeowners and lawn mowers to be aware that casting clippings into the street is not just an innocuous activity. These steps should be enough to avoid it:
- Most newer mowers with side dischargers come with a chute or cover that keeps the clippings from scattering. Use it.
- Mulching mowers also help. They chop clippings into finer particles and return them directly to the lawn. (It’s better for your lawn to mulch your clippings than to bag them — or spray them in the street.)
- Can’t mulch? Put the grass catcher bag on the mower to avoid throwing clippings into the street.
- Be a mannerly mower: Cut your yard from the outside edges in, aiming the discharger away from the street. This may lead to some clumping as you move to the inside, but a little time with a rake is better than a lifetime of regret.
- Cyclists bear part of the safety responsibility, too, Witkowski said. He advised bikers who encounter clippings to slow down but keep the bike “smooth and steady. Get on clear pavement as soon as possible.”
Maddening as encountering carelessly scattered clippings can be, he urged bikers to keep their cool. He pointed to a recent incident in Illinois where a confrontation between mower and biker resulted in an exchange of colorful dialogue and universally recognized hand gestures.
“A little courtesy goes a long way,” he said.
Add clipping concerns to your mowing safety list
Add “keep clippings out of the road” to your pre-mowing safety checklist, in between “children stay inside” and “pick up debris.” Mowing, trimming and edging are such routine chores it’s easy to forget the dangers, but mowing accidents injure 6,400 an average of Americans every year. The average hospital cost: $37,000 per admission.
The last thing any of us want is to add a motorcycle injury or death to the toll.