By Jordan W. Charness; photo courtesy

Peter arrived at my office yesterday looking white and shaken up. “Have you been outside today?” He asked. “Well of course I have, Peter,” I replied. “How do you think I got to the office?”

Peter was so shaken up that he even ignored that subtle dig and just sat there with a strained look on his face. “I really hate this.” He continued. “This really scares me.”

After we brought him a calming cup of coffee, he finally collected himself enough to tell his tale of woe for the day. It turned out that what he really hated and what really scared him was something that actually terrifies me and probably most other drivers as well: black ice. At this time of year, it’s plentiful and scary. It’s that thin layer of ice on the road that is virtually invisible. It is also hyper-slippery and almost impossible to avoid.

Peter did not notice anything special as he left his house that morning. The road surface looked pretty normal on his quiet residential street. He backed out of the driveway and drove for a few blocks without incident. However, coming down a slight hill about five minutes from his house he pressed on the brake pedal while coming up to a stop sign and to his horror felt the brake pedal push all the way down without noticeably slowing his vehicle.

The ABS system kicked in as it was supposed to and helped slow his car down so that he came to an uneventful stop at the stop sign. The next few blocks consisted of driving as normal and Peter concluded that he just hit an icy spot caused by the hill he had been on. He continued normally on his way to work when he found himself sailing through another stop sign with his ABS system doing its best to stop him, but failing miserably.

To make matters worse there was a police officer watching that corner who saw him go through the stop sign. He was pulled over and given a ticket for failing to stop. Peter’s protestations that he tried to stop fell on deaf ears and he was given a ticket anyway.

Once again, he drove slowly for about 10 blocks without mishap and without noticing any type of ice on the road. He was pretty much convinced that he was out of the section that had iced over and began to drive in his normal manner once again. That’s when he sailed through another intersection and slammed into a parked car. Fortunately he did not cause much damage to his car or even to the parked car but had to deal with the police one more time as he called them to report the accident.

He decided to park his car and walk to my office and slipped and fell twice on his way. He eventually asked me whether he would be responsible for the ticket and the accident since he felt that the black ice was beyond his fault.

A strict reading of the law would make Peter responsible for both of those instances. Peter already knew that it was icy because he had already had an ice sliding incident prior to getting the ticket and the accident. On the other hand, a judge might cut him some slack on the stop sign ticket – but the parked car would never be held responsible for the accident!

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