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Should Driving without First Removing Snow & Ice From Your Vehicle Be Made a Crime In Massachusetts?

Living in Massachusetts can be, during winter, a challenge to say the least.  It’s cold enough here to snow from about early November to early April.  For skiers and winter sports enthusiasts, it’s Heaven.  For me and a lot of people here, it’s more like Hell (freezing over).  The injuries that can be attributed to snow & ice are numerous – and despite what some people might think, the consequences aren’t limited to a scrape or a sprained limb.  The consequences can be death, or worse.

We were reminded of that just a few days ago, when a New Hampshire driver, 22-year-old Michael Conry of Londonderry, N.H., was very seriously injured when a large chunk of ice and snow flew off a vehicle in front of him, came crashing through his windshield, and almost killed him.  Take a look at thess photos

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According to police reports, Conry suffered very serious injuries to his face and required several surgeries to remove numerous pieces of glass from both of his eyes.  The driver of the truck who failed to remove that snow and ice now faces criminal charges under “Jessica’s Law” in New Hampshire, named after a woman who was killed when a nine-foot piece of ice fell off a truck and collided with her vehicle.  Despite efforts to raise public awareness of this threat, many drivers in several states just don’t get the message about the importance of removing snow & ice from their vehicle before hitting the road.

This raises the question of whether or not states such as Massachusetts should make this kind of conduct a criminal offense.  On a civil level, Massachusetts does have laws allowing police to issue financial penalties to drivers who are cited for operating with snow and ice still on their vehicles.  The most commonly used civil violation is M.G.L. Chapter 85, Section 36, which carries fines of up to $200 for operating with an “unsecured load” (the snow and ice that’s on the vehicle).  Theoretically, a driver who causes serious property damage or serious bodily injuries to another driver in these “flying snow and ice” cases, can be charged criminally with reckless or negligent operation of a motor vehicle under M.G.L. Chapter 90, Section 24, or M.G.L. Chapter 90, Section 23, which criminalizes obscured license plates. But there is no specific law on the books in Massachusetts criminalizing the operation of a motor vehicle without first removing snow and ice from the vehicle.

Should there be?  While many would quickly say “yes”, enforcing such a new law could be, of a practical level, difficult.  Should we jam the already overcrowded criminal courts with additional criminal defendants, draining both police and prosecutors’ efforts away from violent crime? As a Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer, I think not.   In my professional opinion, a more effective approach would be to increase the existing civil (financial) penalties under the statutes mentioned above.   Currently, police can issue drivers a $200 fine for “operating with an unsecured load”, if the vehicle has heavy sheets of snow or ice on its exterior (usually hood, roof or trunk).  Officers can also fine a driver $40 for “impeded operation of a motor vehicle” if snow or ice is obstructing the windows.  But those fines, coupled with public safety campaigns on this issue, apparently aren’t stopping many drivers from simply getting in their vehicles after a snow storm, clearing off only the windshield and rear window – not the hood, roof or trunk lid –  and driving off.

A better approach to this continuing problem would be to beef up the existing civil penalties for this conduct.  Similar to New Hampshire, I believe that a tiered penalty structure as follows would be more effective at preventing this behavior:

$250 to $500 for a first offense and $700 to $1,200 for subsequent offenses.

These increased fines, coupled with digital advisories on highway signs reading:  “Drivers:  Clear The Snow Before You Go”, and flashing the financial penalties for violations, would help to prevent or substantially reduce, the public safety threat this behavior presents.

Or perhaps the highway signs could read “Drivers:  Remove The Snow or Pay Big Dough”.

Feel free to call us at Ph.:  (781) 320-0062 or contact us if we can answer any questions about this issue.

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