Besides leaving 10 inches of snow on the ground by Friday evening, Connecticut’s first winter storm of 2014 also should test the state’s new effort to control flying ice on its highways.
According to a new law that took effect this week, truck drivers could be fined up to $1,250 if accumulated ice dislodges and causes damage to a person or to another vehicle.
What became known as the “flying ice” or “ice missile” law is the product of more than a decade of legislative debate over how to handle large sheets of frozen material that unexpectedly crash into the windshields of unlucky motorists each winter.
Sometimes drivers are only momentarily blinded. On other occasions, the ice actually crashes through the windshield.
“I can’t tell you how many times I saw what I call a ‘slow-motion nightmare’” on the highway, said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, who first spearheaded the effort to ground “ice missiles” in 2001. “You can’t do anything. You’re surrounded by traffic. You’re just watching it happen.”
Cafero, a Norwalk Republican who works for a Hartford law firm, said his private-sector job and his responsibilities at the Capitol put him on Connecticut highways daily.
But while he witnessed the hazard several times firsthand, Cafero said the danger was driven home one day when his wife returned from work in Tarrytown, N.Y., with a smashed-in windshield courtesy of a sheet of ice from a tractor-trailer’s roof bed.
The Norwalk lawmaker recalled when he introduced his first bill to require motorists to clear their vehicles in 2001. “It was almost like a joke,” he said. “People laughed.”
In addition, the trucking industry fought hard against any penalty, arguing that most commercial vehicles are stored outside and that it wouldn’t be easy to ensure all trucks were snow-and-ice-free at all times.
But while the Capitol chuckled, Cafero’s computer filled up winter after winter with emails complaining of flying ice — often accompanied by pictures. Public pressure steadily grew over the next decade.
When the legislature finally adopted penalties for “ice missile” violators in 2010, it still allowed considerable lead-in time for the trucking industry to adjust.
Since October 2011, non-commercial motorists have faced fines of $75 if they fail to clear snow and ice from their car, and another $200 to $1,000 if dislodged material causes personal injury or property damage.
But the largest and most dangerous sheets of ice tend to build up on truck roof beds, and lawmakers deferred penalties for commercial vehicles until the last day of 2013. The fine for damage caused by ice from commercial vehicles ranges from $500 to $1,250.
Cafero said he understood the need for a compromise to give the trucking industry time to prepare.
But even with that time, the head of the state’s largest trucking association said the industry still faces some challenges complying with the new law.
Many businesses now use specially designed rakes or a series of plastic rollers attached to a long handle to remove snow from truck roofs, said Michael Riley, president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut.
But those solutions work best when a truck is parked where it’s normally stored, where workers can safely get to an elevated position to more easily clean the roof.
What happens, Riley asked, if snow accumulates on a truck roof while a driver is in the middle of a one- or two-week-long trek to numerous destinations across the country?
A driver’s ability to clear snow off of the roof while standing on the ground and using a snow rake is limited, Riley said. And he noted that federal safety regulations prohibit drivers from climbing onto the truck roof, where the danger of slipping is great.
“Those things aren’t meant to have people walking around on them,” Riley said. He added that until a new generation of trucks is built with a roof design that discourages snow buildup, companies would continue to struggle to comply perfectly with the new law. “It’s a problem that needs better solutions than the ones we have now.”