Cleaning snow from steps, sidewalks and driveways can be an unwelcome chore at this time of year. But avoiding the chore of clearing snow from a vehicle can leave drivers on the wrong side of the law.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise, since “Jessica’s Law” has been in effect in New Hampshire since 2002. The legislation is named after Jessica Smith, a 20-year-old who was killed when ice that flew off of a truck, struck another truck, which then careened head-on into Smith’s vehicle. The law, formally known as RSA 265:79-b, makes a person who drives “in a manner that endangers or is likely to endanger any person or property” guilty of negligent driving, a violation that brings a fine of up to $500 for first offense, and between $500 and $1,000 for subsequent offenses.
The law could apply to a range of unsafe driving behaviors, Laconia Police Lieutenant Rich Simmons said. This time of year, the law is used to prohibit drivers from leaving their driveways with snow piled on the roof of their car, van or truck.
“If someone’s driving with ice and snow on top of their cars, obviously it’s negligent, it’s putting other people at risk,” Simmons said. “If you have that snow or ice on top, when you’re driving down the road and the wind gets under it and it flies off the car, that can cause a serious accident and it has, in fact, killed people.”
Captain Rich Mann of the Belmont Police Department said he can tell by the forecast if his officers will be pulling people over the following day.
“At least every storm, we have multiple cars that are stopped,” Mann said. “We write at least two tickets per storm.”
And they’ve issued many more warnings. Typically, the officer will offer a little roadside education, Mann said, and ask the driver if they’d like to borrow the officer’s brush to clear off their vehicle.
The driver’s history, how much snow and ice were on the car, as well as their reaction to the officer, are all factors that could go into the officer’s decision about whether to write a summons or if a warning will suffice.
In Gilford, between Nov. 1 and Feb. 5, officers issued 15 warnings and one summons to drivers who hadn’t cleaned their vehicles. “It is something we enforce and take seriously,” said Deputy Chief Kristian Kelley.
Kelley said it’s usually drivers who are in a rush to get somewhere, so they skip the task of cleaning their vehicle. That shortcut can have “dire consequences,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to remember how important such simple things are, until a tragedy occurs.”
That officers tend to educate before they write a summons was illustrated last week in Bristol. Officer Eli Schaffner visited the parking lot of a business when a shift was getting out after several inches of snow had fallen. If any workers started to drive off with snow on their vehicles, he let them know what the fine would be once they drove onto the public road.
“Most people are pretty good about it, they understand,” Bristol Lieutenant Timothy Woodward said about drivers who are stopped for the violation.
Just a week later – yesterday morning – the reason for Jessica’s Law was apparent in Bristol. A manufactured home was being trailered on Route 104, when a sheet of ice flew off the roof of the home and smashed onto the hood of a car passing in the opposite direction. There was no injury this time, but there was damage to the vehicle. At highway speeds, especially when the ice strikes an oncoming vehicle, “It doesn’t take much,” said Woodward.
Mann said drivers who see a vehicle with a load of snow atop their roof should pick up the phone and notify their local police dispatcher.
“They absolutely should. It’s just like an unsafe driver, a drunk driver,” Mann said. He said his patrol officers would do what they could to find the vehicle. “Even if it’s just to stop and educate, to get the driver to clean up the situation. We’re here to educate the driver and keep everyone safe.”