snowy car

WILLISTON -- It’s not uncommon to be traveling down a road in Vermont during the winter, especially a highway, and suddenly feel like you’re driving through a blizzard. But moments before, there wasn’t a flake in the sky.

It’s because you came up to another vehicle which was blanketed with snow and hadn’t been completely cleared off. You, like many other people, might then beg the question:

Why don’t police pull over and issue tickets in this scenario more often?

The answer is rather simple: in Vermont, there is no statute requiring vehicles to be void of any snow or ice before being operated.

The statute closest to applying in such instances, 23 V.S.A. § 1125, only requires that the front windshield, vent windows, or side windows located immediately to the left and right of the operator not be obstructed. It’s mostly enforced in cases where those glass pieces have been painted over, have stickers placed on them, or have objects hung in a place where they’re obstructing the driver’s view.

“I think what's interesting about Vermont motor vehicle law is that, that is the only statute that could be applied to ice and snow on your windshield or windows,” said Special Operations and Traffic Safety Sgt. Jay Riggen of the Vermont State Police. “There is no other law that governs the snow and ice issue.”

This means that officers cannot issue tickets for snow or ice being on the roof of a vehicle, covering any rear windows, or covering the back windshield.

If finding that the windshield, vent windows or front seat side windows are obstructed by snow or ice, the Vermont statute calls for a fine between $47 and $1,197. If the driver admits to being at fault, the waiver penalty is $105. The violation does not include any points being charged to one’s license.

However, Riggen said that drivers could face a much-more severe penalty if that snow or ice on top of their vehicle is to fly off and cause damage to property or people, comparing it to a driver being distracted by the radio and causing injury or death to someone else.

“That is a grossly-negligent operation, which is a felony criminal law violation,” said Riggen. “So there is no civil ticket… but there is a criminal law arrest that goes along with that. And that's considered felonious.”

According to Riggen, there are many cases of snow or ice flying off of vehicles and damaging cars or trucks behind them each year in Vermont, including three this past December. He recounted an incident in Fairfax from years ago in which a large piece of ice fired off the top of a box truck, went through the windshield of a minivan that was trailing, and exploded into a child’s car seat that was in the back. Luckily, the mother was on her way to pick up her kid, and the car seat was empty at the time.

Riggen thinks completely clearing off a vehicle is not only the courteous thing to do for fellow drivers, but it’s something that can help prevent future Fairfax instances.

“These things do happen and are put into motion when people don't take the time,” he said. “In the context of the social contract, aside from law violation, people deserve the right to drive down the road and not have ice come flying off of another vehicle and smash their car."

He said it's worth it to spend the few minutes it takes to clear snow from your vehicle so someone doesn't get hurt.

Do I have to clear every inch of ice off my windshield and front seat windows?

Riggen said it’s open to the officer’s discretion, but his subjective opinion considers an obstruction that is even just 3-5 inches large, similar to the size of a handicap placard, to be enough to warrant a ticket and penalty.

“That's a little obstruction,” he said. “But when we think about that, that is more than enough of an obstruction to block the driver's view of a child bouncing a basketball on the sidewalk.”

Riggen said that, generally, the area of the windshield that is covered by activated wiper blades is good enough to safely operate and not be at risk of receiving a ticket.

If officers can’t issue tickets for snow and ice being on top of a vehicle, should I call 911 to report an instance of large chunks flying off the top of one -- especially at high speeds?

“I think that if it's shedding, I would want someone to make that call,” Riggen said, comparing it to if a tractor trailer were shedding equipment in a hazardous manner. He went on to explain that he’d like the report to be made so law enforcement can become aware of what’s happening, stop the vehicle, and educate the driver about why they’re creating a dangerous situation.

“The driver may not even know that it’s happening, so it needs to be addressed,” he added.

While Vermont has a hands-free driving statute that makes it illegal for people to use handheld devices while operating a vehicle, there is a provision that allows people to use a cell phone in order to call 911 for an emergency situation.

Riggen said that all drivers should constantly be mindful of their surroundings and proactively back off to give sufficient room between themself and a vehicle that is shedding snow or ice.

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