Bill aims to clear snow, ice off autos

Lazy drivers to face $500 fine or jail

By Lucas Wall
Globe Staff / September 14, 2005

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Paula Waugh was shopping two days after a winter storm when a chunk of ice flew off the top of a tractor-trailer, bounced off the hood of her Chevy Blazer, and smashed into her windshield. The next thing she remembers is being stopped on the road, her face covered in blood.

''When I saw that ice coming off, I just figured it would hit the pavement," she said. ''You don't think about it coming through the windshield or hitting you."

Waugh said yesterday she still suffers nightmares 2 1/2 years after the incident on Route 202 in Winchendon near the New Hampshire border left her with a broken nose and other facial injuries. Hoping to prevent a similar accident from happening to someone else, Waugh pushed her state representative to craft a bill requiring motorists to clean snow or ice off their vehicles.

Yesterday, the Legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation heard the proposal, which seeks to impose a fine of up to $500 or a jail term of up to six months for drivers who threaten public safety by failing to scrape their vehicle clean.

The committee's chairmen said they support the bill's purpose and expect members on the panel will refine the language in coming weeks. The bill's sponsor, Representative Brian Knuuttila, said it is urgent his colleagues make it law before winter.

''We're not too far away from the first snow flying," said Knuuttila, a Democrat from Gardner. ''We've got to make people aware that if they persist in this type of negligent behavior, someone is going to get seriously injured. We need to have some serious negative sanctions."

Waugh said that clearing snow is a simple step that every driver should take to ensure the safety of those around them.

''It's a matter of taking a little extra time," she said. ''I've had people tell me they wouldn't want to fool with something like that, that they don't have time to clean off their cars. But they have no idea what that ice can do."

If the bill passes, Massachusetts could become the first state to require motorists to scrape their vehicles clear of snow and ice before they drive.

Melissa Savage, a transportation policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, said her group's research did not find a mandatory scraping law in any state, though lawmakers in New Hampshire have recently debated similar legislation. Many states have laws prohibiting driving a vehicle with an obstruction. But that would only cover people driving with snow covering their windows, she said, not anything like chunks atop the vehicle that could become projectiles or obscure visibility for other motorists.

Officials with some national traffic-safety groups also said yesterday they were not aware of any scraping laws. ''That's a real interesting piece of legislation," said Jeremy Gunderson, spokesman for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based alliance of consumer, health, and safety groups and insurance companies. ''It does seem to make practical sense."

In 2003, the most recent year for which federal data are available, there were about 261,000 traffic collisions in which snow or ice was cited as a factor. That includes 858 accidents involving a fatality and 58,000 involving injuries, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Spokeswoman Elly Martin said there's no breakdown, however, on how many of those involved flying chunks of ice or snow hitting other vehicles or impairing visibility.

Art Kinsman, director of government affairs for AAA Southern New England, said the bill has merit. ''It's a pain in the neck to get up and get that stuff off your vehicle, but when people just leave it, it can create some real problems for people who are following behind," Kinsman said. ''People who don't clear their car off are lazy and irresponsible. They should be fined."

However, he contended that the proposed penalty is too high and said police officers might be reluctant to enforce the law.

Representative Joseph F. Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat and cochairman of the Transportation Committee, said the language in the bill needs to be fine-tuned. As written, it would ban ''operating a motor vehicle with an accumulation of snow or ice which constitutes a threat to public safety."

Wagner said the language is too vague, recalling an occasion where a snowplow on an overpass knocked snow onto his vehicle below. Also, snow could easily accumulate on thousands of vehicles plowing through a heavy storm, he noted. ''There is some gray area here we need to try to figure out how to deal with," he said. ''But I don't think it's unreasonable that folks should clear their car of snow and ice."

Lucas Wall can be reached at