Law's Message to Motorists: Lose the Snow

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Weather wimps, beware.

Those who dare to venture out and drive in snowy conditions will have to comply with D.C. Council legislation requiring that their vehicles be cleared of snow and ice -- or they risk being stopped by police.

A week after President Obama poked fun at local school closings resulting from a wintry mix of weather, the council voted unanimously to allow police officers to stop drivers and warn them to clear off their vehicles.

The emergency law will be in effect for 225 days. That's enough time to make it through the winter and to decide whether drivers should be fined or sent to traffic school -- penalties that were tossed out of a draft of the bill after council debate.

"It's a common sense issue," said the bill's author, Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), in an interview after the vote. "Snow flies off and hits someone else. . . . When it snows, the safety rules go out the window."

Thomas said that he grew weary of spotting cars encased in snow and that he feared for the safety of other drivers as sheets of ice fell from the roofs of vehicles. He quickly penned the emergency legislation and then faced questions from his colleagues about the discretion police officers would have to cite a driver, the appropriate amount of a fine, and the necessity of removing snow from the entire vehicle, rather than just the windows.

Similar proposals have been stalled up and down the East Coast. In Massachusetts, the state turnpike police can fine drivers $100 for failing to remove snow and ice from their vehicles, but the state legislature stopped short of a statewide law.

John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for Mid-Atlantic AAA, praised Thomas's effort but added that winning on the issue has been difficult.

A handful of states, including New Hampshire, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan and Nebraska, allow officers to issue citations, according to the American Transportation Research Institute, an Arlington County-based group that represents the trucking industry.

Thomas said the city should brace for some push back from the trucking industry.

The trucking industry institute released a report on snow and ice accumulation in December. In the report, the institute cites traffic deaths caused by falling sheets of ice, but it also remarks that it is dangerous to climb on ice-covered rigs to clear them off and expensive to buy equipment to do the work.

For some state legislators, one death is too many.

In Pennsylvania, a 51-year-old woman was killed instantly in 2005 when an eight-inch-thick hunk of ice hit her windshield. Under a law enacted the next year, motorists can be fined $200 to $1,000 for a falling piece of ice that causes serious injury or death. But again, the legislature stopped short of imposing fines for failing to remove snow and ice from a vehicle.

In a statement yesterday, Pennsylvania state Sen. Lisa M. Boscola (D) commented on the D.C. legislation: "This law is needed, it will save lives and it should be copied by every other state that has to plow snow in the winter."

In other D.C. Council business, Thomas and council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) withdrew legislation to override a veto of a bill that would have required the state superintendent of education to create disciplinary policies for the public schools. The council approved the bill unanimously in December, but Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) vetoed it.

The legislation was sparked by mass suspensions at several schools, including Dunbar Senior High, where 19 girls were arrested for fighting in one day in November. The council found that suspensions were not working and that suspended students were unsupervised and were falling behind in their schoolwork.

Thomas and Barry said they did not want the override to become a political fight between the mayor and the council. At a breakfast before yesterday's meeting, several council members praised Thomas, Barry and council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) for calling attention to suspensions and continuing to make the point that the council will get involved in education matters.

"The three of you accomplished what you set out to accomplish," said council member David A. Catania (I-At Large).

At the same time, the council steered clear of appearing to be "fighting for the sake of fighting," he said. "We've avoided a PR issue."

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