By ANDY MARSO
WASHINGTON (January 19, 2011) If you drove Maryland's roads Tuesday, chances are you saw them: shimmering sheets of ice dislodging themselves from cars and trucks and soaring gracefully through the air.
But how dangerous are those sheets when they land? Plenty dangerous, said Maryland State Highway Administration spokesman Charlie Gischler.
"That's something that we're very concerned about," Gischler said. "We see it all the time, you know, you see these huge sheets of ice just flying right off of cars and trucks....That could be solid ice that's coming right at you at 60 miles an hour."
The mammoth chunks that fly off the tops of tractor trailers have caused serious and even fatal accidents in some states.
Paula Waugh of Winchendon, Mass., suffered a broken nose and facial fractures when a sheet of ice bounced off the hood and through the windshield of her Chevy Blazer in 2003.
Christine Lambert, 51, of Palmer Township, Pa., was killed on Christmas Day 2005 when an 8-inch-thick piece of ice came through the windshield of her Mazda Tribute, and 20-year-old Jessica Smith was killed in New Hampshire in 1999 when a driver swerved into her car from the oncoming lane after a 9-foot sheet of ice fell from a big rig onto his windshield.
Ragina Averella, manager of public and government affairs for AAA's Mid-Atlantic branch, said she narrowly missed a similar accident while traveling in Maryland on Interstate-95 last week.
"It's particularly, I think, more common with larger trucks, where snow and debris fall off," Averella said. "But even with regular motorists, we encourage them to do that (clear off snow and ice) because again it poses dangers for other motorists on the road."
The American Transportation Research Institute released a study in 2009 titled "Snow and Ice Accumulation on Vehicles" that included a survey in which 35 percent of tractor-trailer drivers said snow or ice had fallen from their vehicle and caused injury or property damage to another motorist.
The study also asked truck drivers to rate methods of ice removal, including drive-through scrapers, drive-through catwalks or mobile lifts to provide roof access and truck wash stations. More than half the truckers surveyed (54 percent) said they rarely or never removed ice from the top of their vehicles.
Louis Campion, president and CEO of the Maryland Motor Truck Association, said it is a difficult problem to address because removing snow and ice could be dangerous as well.
"As you can imagine, trying to have a driver or a company employee access the roof of a truck that may be covered with snow or ice is next to impossible and puts that employee in significant danger," Campion said.
Some states have passed laws in recent years fining drivers of cars or trucks who don't clear snow and ice from their vehicles. New Jersey was first, imposing $25-$75 fines in 2009 that are upped to $200-$1,500 if the snow or ice causes damage or injury. Connecticut passed a similar law that will go into effect in 2013, Massachusetts imposes fines on the Massachusetts Turnpike, and Pennsylvania fines drivers if snow or ice from their vehicles cause serious injury or death.
Maryland law requires drivers to clear snow and ice from their windows and vehicle lights, but not from their hoods or roofs.
Metropolitan Police spokeswoman Tisha Gant said the District instituted fines two years ago after an emergency order by then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, but that order has since expired.
Gischler said he hoped drivers would be diligent about clearing off their vehicles even if it wasn't mandated by law.
"There's always time for safety," Gischler said. "They've got to think, how would they feel if it happened to them? What if they had their kids in the car? You're driving down the street and you just want to get from Point A to Point B with your kids and there's a big sheet of ice coming at you."