Earlier this week, on a brilliant, sunny day in Western Poland, a tanker carrying 12 tons of liquid chocolate overturned in the middle of a highway. Immediately tragic and comic, the scene stirred up a bevy of headlines: “Chocolate Spills, and Brown Goo Closes a Polish Highway,” the New York Times wrote; “Choc-a-block traffic after liquid-chocolate tanker spill in Poland,” Enca declared; “Liquid chocolate spill from truck accident leaves road sticky mess,” was the Daily Mail’s take. An Arizona radio station simply tweeted: “Willy Wonka is gonna be pissed.”
The online laughs were just the latest for what seems like a recent string of truck spills. In March 2018 alone, a truck scattered frozen McDonald’s french fries across a highway in Southern California; 60,000 pounds of beer were poured out of a semi in Florida; and hundreds of heads of cabbage rolled down a highway in North Carolina after a tractor trailer turned over.
Each spurred its own set of groan-worthy dad jokes. (Of the chocolate covering that Polish highway, “Everyone is said to be ok and their cars have been upgraded from ‘operational’ to ‘delicious,’” Twitter user Dan Fraley quipped.)
But are these incidents really as frequent as they seem, and should we feel guilty for laughing about them? Here’s everything you should know about the roadway disasters that claim hundreds of thousands of pounds of raw food and groceries every year:
1. Are food-related tractor-trailer crashes more common than other truck accidents?
Not necessarily. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said via email that it does not keep track of the number of collisions by heavy vehicles carrying food products.
But a 2014 study published by the American Journal of Industrial Medicine suggests, at least, that food-related crashes are not the industry’s most deadly: It found that in fatalities among heavy truck drivers, or trucks with a gross vehicle weight capacity of more than 26,000 pounds, from 2003-2008, only 4 percent involved merchant wholesalers of nondurable goods, which includes food.
2. So why do I keep reading about them?
Because they’re so visually captivating, for one thing. This is what tons of spilled oranges looks like:
If such an incident occurred in a nearby town, you’re probably learning about it because it’s simply local news that needs to be reported. But they’re also prime fodder for internet humor, which creates an opportunity for other media types far from the accident scene to cash in on the clicks among their own audiences by adding their own spin to the story. (Eater is guilty as charged.)
According to Ryan Milner, an associate professor of communications at the College of Charleston who researches memes and online behavior, the way people create and react to the varying media reports regarding these accidents looks a lot like, well, memes.
3. Wait, memes?
Yes. “If you go back to idea of a meme as being an idea or a bit of culture that spreads as other people imitate it, or pay attention to stuff other people have done, you have elements of a meme happening with this coverage,” Milner says.
Just look at stories from this past December, when the Dallas-area news station WFAA first reported the news about a semi carrying 40,000 pounds of avocados that suddenly caught fire. Within hours of reaching the regional audience, news websites and blogs around the country, including The Guardian, New York Magazine’s Grub Street, and Eater, were recapping the accident, injecting their own spins and hot takes — mostly with quips about guacamole and millennials.
Soon after, it was being shared and commented on on social media platforms, with Twitter users like Ryan J. Negri tweeting their own responses: “Holy Guacamoley! 40K pounds of Avocados...TOAST!”
4. So is it bad that I’m laughing at these crashes?
To a certain degree, yes.
5. Wait, really? Why?
Milner noted that because many of these pun-filled news stories and blogs are done with a light-hearted or ironic tone, they overlook underlying problems in the trucking industry. “If there are real issues underneath this — sleep deprivation, overworking — we’re using a small sliver of crashes to make a funny joke about beer kegs,” Milner says. “We are flattening the real problem in the name of internet humor.”
Drivers falling asleep at the wheel have been blamed for spillover incidents involving ramen noodles, potatoes, and frozen chicken. Studies suggest that the trucking industry is in the middle of a driver shortage, leading to more novice drivers on the road — this has resulted in accidents caused by driver overcorrection (spaghetti sauce), drivers hitting overpasses (pizza), and drivers operating their vehicles recklessly (milk). As American Trucking Association economist Bob Costello tells NPR, the shortage is “a serious concern for our industry, for the supply chain, and for the economy at large.”
6. How much do these food spills cost?
Aside from the drivers’ care, much of the damage is material, which in theory is covered by insurance. (The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration requires that drivers have insurance coverage for bodily injury and property damage liability in the minimum amount of $750,000 to $5 million, depending on the nature of the cargo being transported, according to the trucking consultant United World Transportation.)
Also, given the amount of media attention they get and the fact that the products aren’t being causally associated with death, one might even see these crashes as advertising opportunities for the food brands that get caught up in these accidents.