Kris Matthys got stuck at an I-96 exit in Warren. (Kris Matthys)
Warren— Michigan motorists trying to navigate snow- and ice-covered roads during this miserable winter, be advised: If you wipe out, you could get slapped with an expensive ticket.
That’s what happened to Harrison Township resident Kris Matthys on Wednesday after she got stuck in a snowbank on the Hoover exit ramp off westbound Interstate 696 in Warren while driving to her job at a Kroger store.
Several inches of snow had snarled rush-hour traffic that morning, resulting in spinout crashes throughout the state. Matthys said the exit ramp was snow-covered as she got off the freeway. A picture she snapped during the incident shows faint tire tracks on the snowy ramp.
“I drive a Chevy HHR, a light little car, and I hit an icy patch and started to swerve,” said Matthys, 46. “I lost control and got stuck in a snowbank. I ended up sideways, and the way I was sitting, I was afraid I’d get hit by other cars, so I called 911 and told them I wasn’t hurt, but that my car was in a dangerous position.”
About 10 minutes later, a Michigan State trooper arrived, along with a tow truck.
The truck pulled her out of the snow — and the state trooper handed her a ticket for “Violating Basic Speed Law/Too Fast,” which carries a $90 fine and two driving points.
“I was shocked,” Matthys said. “Getting a ticket was the last thing I expected. The cop wasn’t even there. How does he know I was driving too fast? I was going along with the rest of the traffic. I just happened to hit a slippery patch and ended up in a snowbank.”
An officer doesn’t have to witness a wipeout to determine if a motorist was driving too fast, Michigan State Police Lt. Michael Shaw said.
“We try to explain this to citizens all the time: If you’re driving down the freeway and you go through a certain spot just fine, but I wipe out and lose control, then I violated basic speed law,” Shaw said.
“Probably 1,000 other cars were able to go onto that exit with no problem, but she wiped out, so she’s in violation. You can’t blame the snowbank.”
Shaw advised motorists who don’t think they’re able to drive under adverse conditions to stay off the roads.
“We tell people all the time when the weather’s bad: If you’re capable of driving in those conditions, go ahead.
“But some people can drive in the snow; some can’t,” Shaw said. “You have to weigh that before you go out, and decide whether it’s worth having an at-fault driving crash on your record. Some people think because it’s snowy outside, it absolves them from any incident they get into.”
Shaw said it’s up to the officer to determine whether to issue a ticket — and added that the decision to levy a fine is ultimately up to a judge.
“She can explain the situation to the judge, and the judge can decide if the ticket was proper,” Shaw said.
Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Michael Talbot, who handled traffic court cases when he was a lower court judge, agreed anyone with a beef about such a ticket should challenge it.
“I would advise people to come to court, tell the magistrate what happened, and trust in the good judgment of the magistrate,” Talbot said.
State Police spokeswoman Shannon Banner said the law is clear: Motorists must drive according to the weather conditions.
“We know that crashes are overwhelmingly caused by driver error,” she said.
“We’ve had many cases where troopers were hit by motorists. In fact, we just put out a press release reminding people to go slow because the conditions have been so bad.”
Steve Purdy, spokesman for the National Motorists Association’s Michigan chapter, often criticizes police for using tickets as revenue enhancers — but in this case, he said that isn’t likely the case.
“It’s a valid ticket,” he said. “Sliding off the road is prima facie evidence of driving too fast. I don’t think this is necessarily a money-grab, but to issue a ticket under those circumstances seems kind of hard-hearted. What good did it serve?
“Police officers often give people tickets for driving too fast in bad weather when there isn’t a crash,” Purdy said.
Southfield attorney Danny Kallabat, who represents clients who’ve been ticketed, said he sees both sides of the argument.
“The (municipality) has an obligation to keep the roads safe, but I think the driver also has a responsibility to be careful when it’s slippery out,” he said.
“I see people zooming by me all the time when the roads are slick, and I think, ‘Are they crazy? They’re going to crash.’ So people really need to slow down. If you’ve lived in Michigan your whole life, you should know that.”
Matthys plans to fight the ticket.
“There were all kinds of cars wiping out that morning,” she said.
“I’d like to know how a police officer who wasn’t even there was able to determine I was driving too fast because I got stuck in a snowbank.
“Does that mean if I get stuck in the snow pulling out of my driveway, I was also driving too fast? It’s ridiculous.”