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Snow, Ice, Bad Drivers and Negligence

???????????????????????????????Another snowstorm? Skiers and other winter sports fans love it. But, driving in snow and ice turns every day routines into a nightmare.

Ever get behind a truck or car with snow piled on the roof, and chunks start flying in the air and you hope none of it strikes you? This violates the rules of the road in most states, whether the law is specific or a general provision.

Failing to clear snow off the roof of a vehicle in New Hampshire can bring a fine of $250 to $500.

Massachusetts rules of the road don’t specifically target failure to clear snow off the roof. But Massachusetts Police can stop vehicles with snow on the roof on a variety of general charges including negligent operation, which can actually bring license suspension. Another provision generally prohibits anything that interferes with proper operation of a vehicle and brings a fine. MGL c. 90, Sec 13.

New Hampshire passed its law in 2002 after 20-year-old Jessica Smith was killed in Peterborough when a 9 foot piece of ice flew off the top of a tractor trailer, causing a multi vehicle crash. Failing to clear snow off the roof of a vehicle is now a crime and drivers have lost CDL and other licenses for failing to clear snow from their vehicles in New Hampshire.

Clearing Snow Off Vehicle

Brutally cold weather also tempts people to clear just enough of the windshield to see, not the entire view. That’s illegal too. The law actually requires full clearance of the windshield, rear window and the other windows before hitting the road.

There’s actually a case on the books in which a motorist was held liable for causing a serious accident with major injuries after clearing only a “poke hole” in the snow on the windshield.

Snow Rules of the Road

One driver slides on the snow and ice, bashing into a second vehicle. Often, other vehicles following too closely slam into vehicles in the first collision, resulting in massive accidents with huge numbers of vehicles. These accidents aren’t so much “caused” by the snow and ice as they are the result of failure to follow the rules of the road.

Rule 1: Following Too Closely

Most states have “rules of the road” spelled out in statutes, regulations and elsewhere. One of the most often ignored rules is the one prohibiting “tailgating”, or following too closely. Here’s a somewhat standard version, as it appears in Massachusetts:

“The driver of a vehicle shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard to the speed of such vehicle and the traffic upon and condition of the highway”

720 Code of Massachusetts Regulations [CMR] 9.16 (7).

Notice the “condition of the highway” language which imposes a legal duty on all drivers to observe snow, ice and other bad conditions and to increase following distance.

Rule 2: Reasonable Speed

Excessive speed causes snow accidents. Rules of the road require:

“No person shall drive a vehicle on a way at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions and having regard to the actual and potential hazards then existing.”

RSA 265:60

This is New Hampshire’s version of a fairly common general rule, meaning that ‘Speed Limit’ signs actually apply only under ideal conditions. A local road might be posted at 40. But under snow and ice conditions police can issue a ticket to drivers going that fast or less. And if there’s an accident, excessive speed under the circumstances could be much lower.

States often lower speed limits during storm conditions. Highway signs, radio announcements and other media messages notify drivers. Saying “I didn’t know” after an accident doesn’t protect violators under the old “ignorance is no defense” rule.

Rule 3: Operating Under Control

A catch all rule of the road in nearly every state also requires drivers to operate “under control at all times.” This is actually a codified official rule for which drivers can be cited. It is most often applied in rear-end accidents where one driver literally drives into another car.

State Not Responsible for Snow on Road

Every year my office receives calls from those injured in an accident on a slippery roadway and the question is whether the city or town is liable for failing to adequately clear snow and ice? The answer, 99% of the time or more, is no. Remember, the states make the rules so would they let you sue them or their towns for snow? Here is one such law:

“A county, city or town shall not be liable for an injury or damage sustained upon a public way by reason of snow or ice thereon, if the place at which the injury or damage was sustained was at the time of the accident otherwise reasonably safe and convenient for travelers.”

MGL c. 84:17. [Massachusetts Statute]

New Hampshire has a similarly harsh law which has been used to dismiss snow injury cases. In one, the driver of a car was injured when she drove over an open manhole obscured by the snow. In another, a person was hurt slipping and falling in an icy municipal parking lot in Laconia. The courts rejected both cases.

Snow and ice on the road present clear dangers. After an accident if you have the misfortune to get involved in a serious accident, the snow and ice are not the cause. Snow and ice were a condition. The cause was failure by one or more motorists to take that condition into account and to drive safely.

If you have been injured by the negligence of another driver in the snow or otherwise contact my office for a free initial consultation.

2 thoughts on “Snow, Ice, Bad Drivers and Negligence”

  1. Hello,
    I live on a road in NH where at one point of time, many years ago, contained mostly seasonal cottages along a small lake. At that point, they considered the road to be “private”. Now being the year 2020, 99.9 percent of the so called “cottages” on the road, have been completely remodeled or rebuilt, resulting in a beautiful road with many of them being expensive properties. Because of that, the town agreed years ago to plow the road accordingly during the winter months. The town recently had a meeting to discuss their yearly budget, and decided to discontinue maintaining the road, including snow removal. Do the residents have a legitimate claim to sue the town for not removing the snow and ice, making it impassable for the Fire Dept and other emergency vehicles?
    Thank you

    1. Hi Ron;

      My best advice to you is to find a municipal law attorney to approach the town with a work-around to the budget decision to “accept” the road. With respect to bringing a lawsuit against the town, as my blog article mentioned, there are many procedural traps because the state and the towns configured the law to make it extremely difficult and (2) you’re not going to make any friends with those who could hep you in the long run. That’s my advice but a local municipal law attorney may have something else to say. Either way I wish you the best.

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Attorney Myers is a member of the American Trial Lawyers Association, Massachusetts Academy of Trial Lawyers, and New Hampshire Trial Lawyers Association. The Law Offices of Andrew D. Myers offer a broad range of legal services in personal injury cases in Massachusetts (MA) and New Hampshire (NH) areas.

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