With the Great East Coast Blizzard of 2016 having just blasted through the East Coast, now is a great time to remember and consider the dangers of driving on icy winter roads. The statistics from various government and industry resources clearly show that driving in icy conditions can be deadly. Most drivers know to drive more slowly and to watch the roadway for black ice or other slick surface conditions. However, there is another serious, and often unforeseen danger lurking above us – falling chunks of ice and snow from large semi trucks!
Throughout a cold winter night, thick sheets of ice can develop atop tractor trailers, sometimes as thick as a cinder block. Then, as the sun begins to loosen these heavy blocks of ice, hundreds, if not thousands, of large chunks and sheets fly off the top of the tractor trailers toward the smaller passenger cars, trucks and SUVs traveling behind them. Often, this occurs at highway speeds … with catastrophic results.
Twelve states have enacted laws that require all drivers to remove snow and ice accumulation from their vehicles before driving. Most of those laws contain stricter penalties for commercial motor vehicle drivers due to the increased risk and hazard they pose. This is based on several facts: 1) the larger flat roof of a box truck, trailer or other commercial vehicle allows for larger accumulations of snow and ice; 2) when the semi or CMV is stopped during day light (for a traffic jam, to wait out bad weather conditions, for the driver to rest, etc.) the snow can heat up, causing the lower layer of snow to turn to ice; and 3) the height of the semi or CMV prevents the other passenger vehicles from seeing that large chunks of ice or snow are about to fly off.
Despite this known hazard, only some of the more responsible motor carriers have invested in safety equipment at their terminals to remove snow and ice accumulations from their trucks and trailers. Even those companies that have the technology, it is usually only located at their terminals. That means long-haul and over-the-road truck drivers most often do not have access to that critical equipment. In addition, for the professional tractor trailer driver, climbing onto the top of an icy truck and trailer to shovel by hand the snow and ice is a significant fall hazard. The responsible truck drivers will accept that risk and clear their truck and trailer to prevent causing a catastrophic crash with significant property damage, injury or death. However, they are few and far between.
There have been circumstances where major crashes have occurred from drivers swerving to avoid the falling ice from the trailer in front of them. In many of those cases, the truck driver never stopped. Often, these get classified as single car crashes and the truck driver gets away with leaving the scene. Even if the driver of the passenger car is killed or seriously injured, they can be the one found responsible for losing control or traveling too fast for the conditions. It is imperative in these situations to hire an experienced trial attorney that specializes in handling tractor trailer crashes. We know in tractor trailer crashes that you cannot always rely on the investigating officer’s report (regardless of the type of crash). It is common for the passenger vehicle driver to be injured or killed and the officer only has the truck driver’s version of what happened. Experienced truck lawyers know to get the 911 tapes, hire investigators and crash reconstruction experts and, where necessary, to run local ads in hopes of finding the truth about what happened.
Although property damage and crashes from falling snow and ice off trucks occur every day, there is not much publicity or public awareness of this hazard. While there have been many significant injury and death crashes, few have made regional headlines or news. I was happy to see the Today Show ran a story on the dangers of falling ice and snow of passenger cars and trucks. (www.Bit.ly/DeadlyIce) Sadly, and most notably, a fatal crash in New Hampshire took the life of Jessica Smith when a 9-foot sheet of ice fell off a tractor trailer and into her car. Her tragedy resulted in the state passing Jessica’s Law, which made it illegal to drive with snow or ice accumulations on your vehicle. Eleven other states have passed similar laws (NJ, CT, RI, NY, VT, WI, MI, AK, GA, MA, and PA). However, it’s the states where icing events are intermittent and widely spaced that result in the most deaths, as motorists are more likely to be caught unprepared. For instance, the winter storm of 2014 that stranded Atlanta motorists for hours also stranded hundreds of tractor trailers caught in the storm. Once the highways began moving again, there were many instances of large chunks of ice and snow flying off of vehicles, especially from the larger tractor trailers and delivery trucks.
Statistically speaking, although the percentage of serious crashes that occur in snow and ice conditions is smaller when compared with the larger number of crashes that occur under normal conditions, the number of fatalities from these easily preventable crashes is unacceptable. So, what can you do to protect your family and others? First, pay attention to fast-approaching weather and, if possible, avoid being on the roads when significant snow and ice are expected. Second, drive more safely – that means slow down, especially around large trucks. Increase your following distance and try not to be in the lane directly behind a tractor trailer. If you start to see snow coming off the top of the trailer, get as far away from the truck as possible. Finally, always leave yourself an out so that if something flies off or out from under a tractor trailer, you can avoid a potentially-fatal crash. That said, these are actually important safe-driving tips under any weather condition. Be safe out there!