Whenever D.C. gets a big snow, an absurd hole in the District’s public-safety law reveals itself. Furious citizens demand that the hole be patched, and lawmakers promise to do so. Then the snow melts and people forget. The law is not fixed. Eventually, it snows again.
And when that happens, snow on unshoveled sidewalks quickly gets trodden down into hard packs, which then freeze into ice sheets that can last for weeks. The sidewalks become unsafe for small children, elderly people, and those with disabilities. People slip and break bones. People walk in the street and get hit by cars. People feel trapped at home for fear of injury.
Angry, frustrated citizens ask why there isn’t a law requiring residents to keep their sidewalks clear. But in fact, there is such a law. According to the D.C. Code (§9-601), anyone whose house fronts a public sidewalk must clear the sidewalk of snow or ice within eight daylight hours of the last flake’s falling.
So that’s the law, and here’s the hole: there’s no workable enforcement provision. The city can’t easily fine you for failing to shovel, the way it can fine you for parking in a fire lane, leaving your garbage where rats can get at it, or otherwise endangering public health or safety.
Last December, City Council members Mary Cheh and Tommy Wells cosponsored a bill that would allow city workers to issue $25 tickets to residents who don’t clear snow as required. This bill was referred to the Council’s Committee on Public Works and Transportation, headed by member Jim Graham—and there it remains, more than nine months later. The committee did hold hearings, and the Council’s Office of Policy Analysis issued a report that recommends “giving ticketing authority to municipal workers.” The report also advises steps already within the District Department of Transportation’s power, such as designing sidewalks for easier snow removal and training snowplow operators to be more mindful of pedestrians’ needs.
Graham says he expects to take action on the matter before the snow season begins, but “it is still unclear whether the Committee will report a bill to the full Council [for a vote], or whether we will simply request that DDOT initiate some of the recommended actions for which they already have authority.”
That’s right: Jim Graham’s committee has not yet decided whether it will even allow the Council to vote on fines for scofflaws. If you would like to help them decide, you can write to ask them to release the bill. Here are their addresses:
Jim Graham: email@example.com
Tommy Wells (bill cosponsor): firstname.lastname@example.org
Muriel Bowser: email@example.com
Kwame Brown: firstname.lastname@example.org
Phil Mendelson: email@example.com
Under the current law, the only way to get penalized for not shoveling snow is for the city to clear it and then sue you for the cost—which it never does. After years of watching politicians vow—and fail—to make the law easier to enforce, one wonders whether it’s possible to sue the city for not enforcing the law as-is.
Photo of Puck the Corgi copyright 2010 by Wendy Stengel, all rights reserved.