Rush hour storms are always trouble
No weather event seems to create as much misery for commuters as a winter storm arriving during the afternoon rush.
Some of the many drivers who were stuck on 16th Street NW last night may remember their commute on the night of Jan. 18, 2000. Here's the way David Montgomery and Michael E. Ruane described it in The Post:
"Dubbing Tuesday's stormlet the 'Snow Apocalypse' and the 'Snow Flurry From Hell,' motorists yesterday told war stories of needing five hours to drive up 16th Street NW (now known by some as the 'Longest Street in D.C.'); of facing hundreds of dollars in penalties from day-care agencies after arriving hours late to pick up children; of staying late into the night at work, or in restaurants and bars, and finding the roads still jammed with cars proceeding at the speed of a slow walk.
'I tell you, if aliens ever come looking for intelligent life on this planet, I hope they don't arrive in the D.C. area during a light snow at rush hour,' said Keith Pew, who spent two hours driving from Reston to Bethesda."
Many more commuters will recall the primary night storm of Feb. 12, 2008, as described in The Post by Eric M. Weiss: "A sheet of ice that covered much of the Washington region late yesterday closed major highways, caused dozens of accidents, left commuters stranded for hours and caused some would-be voters to miss making it to the polls."
The worst spot that night was the recently completed interchange at Springfield:
"The region's newest, largest and most expensive highway interchange failed dramatically Tuesday night, as many of the Springfield interchange's 50 ramps and sky-high overpasses were shut down by a tenth of an inch of ice.
"The failure was one of a series of major traffic problems that ice caused across the region, resulting in commuters, schoolchildren and others being stranded in vehicles for hours. Chain-reaction pileups occurred on Route 210 in Maryland and on the Interstate 395 HOV lanes in Virginia." (Weiss and Michael Laris, Post, Feb. 14, 2008)
The timing and the results of those two storms were similar to what drivers experienced on Jan. 26, 2011, yet another date that will live in infamy for commuters in the D.C. region.
There were some differences. In both the earlier cases, the forecast was a bit off. In 2000, the afternoon forecast called for flurries. And indeed, that's what we got. It's just that they didn't stop, and major commuter routes like 16th Street were left with a very thin, but very effective coating of ice.
In 2008, Virginia Department of Transportation officials were blind-sided by a forecast that called for rain, not ice, in the Springfield area. They got iced.
By contrast, yesterday afternoon's forecast was dead on: We were supposed to get an intense blast of snow starting around 4 p.m., and we got it.
The highway departments, having learned many lessons from those previous storms, had spent many hours preparing for this one. In recent years, they've focused more intensely on pre-treatment of the roadways, usually with salt brine, so that ice can't bond with the pavement.
But many drivers noticed during their idle hours in traffic last night that there was plenty of ice on the roadways. The departments today will be explaining that when a storm starts with rain, it washes that pre-treatment away. They also will talk about the timing: When a storm arrives during the afternoon rush, they can send out all their trucks with chemicals, salt, sand and plows, but they'll be stuck in the same traffic that you are. This is going to be particularly true when the afternoon rush starts early, as it did yesterday.
Another point that was made in those earlier stories was made again last night: Many drivers perform badly when confronted with heavy traffic and winter weather. We received many accounts of trick driving, or just flat-out bad driving that led to many accidents, further confounding efforts to clear the roads. At that point, some drivers were abandoning their cars, just as they did at the Springfield interchange in 2008.
Are we doomed to repeat this history as long as we commute across a large, congested region? Or is there something missing in the transportation departments' plans?
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