Winter Weather and Chain-Reaction Crashes

The recent blast of winter in the Eastern U.S. is receding and the snow is melting.  However, the many folks involved in accidents during the past few weeks will continue to feel the effects, whether literally or simply from having a wrecked car.  I’m actively conducting research in this area and have some thoughts and tips.

A 50-car pileup in Lake County, Ohio, closed Interstate 90 for about 24 hours on December 8-9, 2016. Photo by OSHP.  (Story)

  1.  The first few hours of a winter storm are the most dangerous.  This isn’t my finding; it comes from others, most notably a study done in Iowa in the 1990s.  Drivers need time to adjust to winter conditions.  On December 13, 2016, snow quickly began in Indianapolis around 7:45 AM, resulting in hundreds of crashes.  Within a few hours, most crashes had been cleared and traffic was flowing again, albeit slowly, despite the fact that snow was still falling with similar intensity (source).  On a related note:
  2. Big storms are less problematic.  These are often well forecasted, causing preemptive closings and people to stay home.  (People staying home may also cause crashes to drop after the first few hours of a storm.)  There is high “situational awareness,” that is, drivers are ready for hazardous conditions through forecasts they’ve heard and/or their own observations.  Thus, they are using more caution.  In contrast, a recent “gridlock” storm in Washington (Jan 2016) was caused by just a few inches of snow.  The well-forecasted blizzard a few days later didn’t strand thousands of motorists.
  3. Chain-reaction crashes most commonly occur when visibility drops quickly.  I found that most winter-related chain reaction accidents were associated with sudden, sharp drops in visibility.  These are caused by snow squalls or other small but intense areas of heavy snow.  Again, drivers simply can’t adjust quickly enough.  Recent examples:  Erie County, PA; Lake County, OH; Luzerne County, PA; Washington, DC metro area.  Important but unanswered question:  Do ALL sudden visibility drops cause chain reaction crashes?
  4. If you are in one of the above situations, be ready to react.  My interest in this line of research was sparked by being involved in one in 2002.  Luckily, both my car and myself were unhurt, but in the moments before the crashes I realized that traffic (including me) was going much too fast for conditions, and I began to slow slightly to allow a larger gap with the vehicle in front of me.  When the crashes started, I drove into the grassy area next to the road rather than take my chances in the emergency lane.
  5. These sorts of crashes are why you should keep your gas tank mostly full in winter and always have winter gear (hats/gloves) and blankets in your vehicle.  I was stranded for a few hours, but sometimes motorists can be stuck for 12 hours or more!  Full lists of items to keep and other winter driving tips are on many web sites; here is what Car Talk recommends.

Safe travels, everyone!

Heavy snow in Baltimore, MD, on Feb 5, 2010. AP photo.

1 Comment

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