Rules of the Road

Getting a cold shoulder on the highway? Time to clear the snow and ice off your vehicle

Debbie Quist clears ice off her car before heading to work in February 2014 in Birch Bay. In the state of Washington, “Robin’s Law” addresses unsecured loads, including snow and ice that may slide off your car.
Debbie Quist clears ice off her car before heading to work in February 2014 in Birch Bay. In the state of Washington, “Robin’s Law” addresses unsecured loads, including snow and ice that may slide off your car. The Bellingham Herald

Question: While driving on the freeway, my friend and I were following a big rig that was divesting itself of its trailer-top ice- and snow-load all over the road. Staying back for a few miles we decided it was done and OK to pass if we did so quickly – wrong.

As we passed, the hood and windshield took a huge hit of slabs of snow and ice, obscuring vision briefly. We truly thought it would come through the windshield.

Fortunately, nothing was damaged but our nerves.

Is there a law about semi trucks and their trailer-top loads of snow? Do we call 911 to report them? It seems incredibly dangerous.

Answer: You’re fortunate that the ice didn’t come through the windshield. A quick internet search will provide you with some examples of people who didn’t fare as well as you.

Ice chunks flying off cars can be dangerous, and we are, as drivers, responsible for whatever falls or flies off our vehicles, whether we put it there or the weather did.

Washington has a law, sometimes called “Robin’s Law,” that addresses unsecured loads.

Before we go into the details, I’ll give you a little background. In 2004 Robin Abel’s daughter was driving on Interstate 405 in Seattle, when an unsecured piece of furniture fell out of a trailer being towed by the vehicle in front of her. A shelf shattered the car window and struck her, causing severe injury. Because of an unsecured load, Abel’s daughter is permanently blind.

Law enforcement located the driver, but they didn’t have many enforcement options. Under the law at the time, the driver was only guilty of littering. Abel became an advocate to change the law, and our current unsecured-load law makes it a crime to injure someone or cause damage to other property from an unsecured load.

But what does unsecured furniture have to do with ice and snow? This law isn’t just about furniture; it also includes this requirement: “Any vehicle with deposits of mud, rocks or other debris on the vehicle’s body, fenders, frame, undercarriage, wheels or tires shall be cleaned of such material before the operation of the vehicle on a paved public highway.”

The law doesn’t mention ice specifically, but it references other debris, and if mud makes the list, ice certainly does, too.

I was going to get all mathy, with formulas about mass and acceleration, but it’s been a while since math class, so I’ll just point out that a modest 5-pound chunk of ice that flies off the roof of a vehicle hits the car behind it with a lot more than 5 pounds of force. At freeway speeds it could be close to 300 pounds. That can do some damage.

We’re still looking at a couple more months of winter, so keep in mind that any ice on your car is your responsibility to remove. Yeah, it’s a hassle, but it’s better than causing a crash.

If you’re stuck behind a vehicle that is launching large chunks of ice onto the roadway, I have a two-birds-with-one-stone solution.

Pull over and report it to 911. Even though the law allows making emergency phone calls while driving, it’s still safer to get off the road, and it’ll put some distance between you and the ice thrower.

Making the call to 911 just might give law enforcement the chance to intervene before some other unlucky driver gets a windshield smashed in.

While we’re on the topic of winter, I will share a few observations from this past week. Northwest Washington has experienced its share of black ice on the roadways, and also more than our share of crashes. As a reminder, drive at an appropriate speed for conditions, and if your drive isn’t absolutely necessary, consider staying home. It would be a shame to wreck your car just because you had a craving for a taco.

Also, all-wheel-drive vehicles have great traction compared with two-wheel-drive cars, but when it comes to stopping, they’re all the same. If you have an all-wheel-drive vehicle, don’t let that extra traction lull you into a false sense of security on icy roads.

And if you haven’t already, throw a few supplies into your car (snacks, water, blankets, first-aid kit) so if you do end up sliding off the road, you’ll at least stay warm and fed while you wait for the tow truck.

I don’t know about you, but I’m counting down the days to spring. Dress warm, be kind and drive wise.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.