Editorial: Why wasn’t plow driver suspended?

What is the state doing now to ensure this won't happen again?

So let’s get this straight.

You get arrested for drunk driving — your blood alcohol level is allegedly almost four times the legal limit — and the state Department of Transportation can’t see how that might disqualify you from driving a snowplow.

Or you total a car with your plow a week-and-a-half later, and the state Department of Transportation can’t see how that might disqualify you from driving a snowplow.

Either DOT officials need glasses, or the department needs to seriously reconsider its procedures for evaluating its drivers in the wake of a fatal plow crash on the Northway late last month.

On Dec. 22, a 38-year-old Schoharie County man was killed after he collided with a snowplow driven by Mark E. Johnson just north of Northway Exit 15 near Saratoga Springs.

On Dec. 5, Johnson had been arrested for aggravated DWI after a traffic stop. And on Dec. 14, he had crashed his plow into a car on the same stretch of the Northway.

When he was arrested for DWI, driving his own personal car in his off-hours, he registered a blood alcohol level of 0.30 percent. The threshold for DWI in New York is 0.08 percent, which means Johnson had nearly four times the legal level of alcohol in his blood.

Just nine days later, he was involved in a crash in which he totalled a car while changing lanes on the Northway near Route 50 in Saratoga Springs. The driver of the car, miraculously, escaped serious injury.

How, one might reasonably ask, was Johnson allowed back in the cab of a plow before either incident could be completely investigated and the driver cleared of any wrongdoing?

How do you get arrested for DWI, regardless of when and where it occurred, and still be trusted to operate a vehicle weighing 15 tons or more in a snowstorm with thousands of cars passing in front of and alongside you?

We’re not talking about depriving someone of the presumption of innocence until proven guilty here. We’re talking about taking reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of motorists against someone whose very recent conduct behind the wheel of a motor vehicle raised serious questions about his qualifications to continue operating a snowplow.

Even if he wasn’t drinking at the time of the fatal crash, shouldn’t that earlier behavior have at least temporarily disqualified him from getting behind the wheel of a state snowplow, especially with the criminal charges and licensing revocation procedures still pending?

State police said the non-fatal snowplow crash was still under investigation when the fatal snowplow crash occurred. So could the state DOT say with 100 percent certainty that their driver didn’t do something to contribute to that crash — an action that might disqualify him from getting behind the wheel of a plow? Shouldn’t the level of his culpability been resolved first?

Driving a plow is difficult and dangerous, especially under wintry conditions and especially when such conditions challenge the driving abilities of the average motorist.

The state Department of Transportation has a legal and moral obligation to put the safety of the public above all else, even above the legal rights of one of its drivers.

What in the state DOT’s rules and procedures allowed this individual, given his recent history, to get behind the wheel of a snowplow?

And what is the DOT doing now to ensure that it won’t be repeated?

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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