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Posted at 10:35 AM ET, 01/27/2011

Rush hour storms are always trouble

By Robert Thomson

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?

By Robert Thomson  | January 27, 2011; 10:35 AM ET
Categories:  Weather  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock  
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I suspect that OPM closing the government 2 hours early, thus ensuring that all the traffic hit the road just as the storm was getting bad, was a major contributing factor. Closing at 2 instead of 3 would've had much of the traffic home and off the roads before it got bad.

Posted by: wiredog | January 27, 2011 10:45 AM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: wiredog, I think that's a very good point. And perhaps more of the region's school systems should have considered closing early, or not opening at all on Wednesday.

I know the early dismissals are problematic for many working parents. Perhaps the overall lesson is that employers and organizations of all sorts should be more realistic in protecting their people from the weather.

I think they might need more of a push in that direction from the transportation agencies. They approach these storms with a can-do attitude: They're ready for the weather, they're out pre-treating the roads, they've got their plows pre-positioned. Only afterward do they acknowledge -- as they did with the blizzards last winter -- that the D.C. region's transportation departments don't have the resources to deal with a severe winter storm.

Posted by: Robert Thomson | January 27, 2011 10:54 AM | Report abuse

This doesn't directly relate to the points in Dr. Gridlock's main post, but Dr. G, I'm wondering if it might be something you could investigate anyway. Last night I picked up my wife at the Franconia-Springfield Metro stop. Given the volume of traffic, and the need to go up a slick hill if I went to the Kiss-and-Ride lane, I told her I'd pick her up inside the garage even though it meant paying the parking fee. I did that, and it took half an hour to get out of the garage via the Level 4 exit in the original portion of the garage. Here's what burned me up: There are four exit lanes there in a staggered arrangement. Picture the notorious Newark Toll Plaza we so often discuss, or the Verrazano Bridge toll plaza in New York. You know how off to one side at each of those there is one lane that goes through and then widens to a smaller set of toll booths off to one side? The Level 4 exit from Franconia-Springfield is like that. Two lanes feed two exit booths and then feed into a single lane, and a third lane to the right goes through and widens to feed two other exit booths.

But the lane all the way to the right was closed last night! Everyone had to go through the two booths and choke down to one lane. Took forever. When the booths DON'T TAKE CASH and are UNATTENDED, what possible excuse can there be for having HALF the exit capacity closed off???? Especially on a night like last night when everyone is getting there around the same time???!!!!!

Turning aside from that issue, my trip to and from the Metro stop wasn't all that bad, other than noting the utter lack of common sense so many people display:

(a) Blocking the box in a snow emergency ought to be declared a more severe violation than in normal circumstances.

(b) Failing to clear your WHOLE vehicle of snow, and failing to use your headlights, should be prosecutable as a criminal offense, perhaps reckless endangerment. (Use of a handheld cell phone should be as well.)

(c) If you drive a four- or all-wheel-drive vehicle, tailgating people who don't have as much traction as you doesn't help matters. Why should someone else risk foundering just to let you through? Back off and mind your manners.

(d) People need to use SERIOUS common sense in choosing routes where feasible. ABC-7 news had a guy on the phone last night who had been stuck on the GW Parkway for 6 hours going from Rockville to GWU. Why would you use the GW Parkway? There is only ONE exit (VA-123). If you get stuck, you're TRULY STUCK with no way out. Surface streets may be slow, but you have more bail-out options. Also, if you know you have traction issues, think about where the hills are and plan accordingly!

Bottom line is yes, sometimes things flat-out stink, but people need to give some heavy thought to their routes and how to drive when a snowstorm looms, and they need to lose the "f^*&-you" attitude that's so prevalent in the DC area. If people refuse to cooperate when driving in these storms, everybody loses.

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 27, 2011 11:16 AM | Report abuse

I completely agree with you 1995hoo about people's lack of judgement in planning trips home last night. CWG made it very clear that once it started snowing, it would accumulate very quickly and conditions would severly deteriorate. I definitely took this into account and had 4 plans for leaving work. I understand that some people simply could not leave work early but that still doesn't excuse the complete lack of judgement by people.

I am a contractor for the Fed Gov so I did not have the 2 hour early allowance, though my boss told me to leave when I needed to. I am also new and have very little leave accumulated yet. So I decided I should be able to leave at 4 and get the 6.5 miles home OK at that time. I was keeping a close eye on weather conditions and planned to bolt as soon as it changed over (if it did so before my planned leaving time at 4). It started sleeting around 3:45 in downtown Silver Spring. When I left at 4pm, large flakes had started to fall. My 4 different plans for getting home:

Plan 1 - Metro from Silver Spring to Glenmont. Take bus from Glenmont to home (about 1 mile) as usual. This plan worked out just fine and I got home in the usual amount of time of 30 minutes. By the time I got off the bus at 4:40pm, the roads were getting really bad so I am glad I did not stay any later at work.

Plan 2 - metro from Silver Spring to Glenmont. If buses aren't running, walk the mile home from the metro station.

If metro train and buses are no longer running...
Plan 3 - Walk the 6.5 miles home, stopping if needed along the way to rest/warm up/have a beer. I even plotted out the three bars spaced roughly 1.5-2 miles apart on my trek where I would stop.

Plan 4 - Go to friend's apartment who lives 2 blocks from my work and crash at her place.

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | January 27, 2011 1:20 PM | Report abuse

@1995hoo, you bring up many important issues as usual. I especially wish we would see someone in the DMV area doing something about

"b) Failing to clear your WHOLE vehicle of snow, and failing to use your headlights, should be prosecutable as a criminal offense, perhaps reckless endangerment. (Use of a handheld cell phone should be as well.)"

NJ has such a law:

Along those lines, I read this on a personal injury lawyer's blog:
"Five states, including Connecticut and New Jersey, currently have laws on the books requiring drivers to clear snow and ice off their cars and trucks. "

We really need such a law here.

Posted by: informedtraveller | January 27, 2011 3:15 PM | Report abuse

I absolutely agree with the anger expressed at people who don't clean the snow off their cars, block the box, text while driving in the snow, etc.

But you're dreaming if you think that increasing the penalties will help the situation. The police don't have the time or the resources to enforce these kinds of driving offenses on a good day, much less in the middle of a snowstorm.

In retrospect, I think that OPM should give people the option for unscheduled leave or telework BEFORE it starts to snow, such as announcing the options in the morning. That would have kept lots of people off the roads on Wednesday (including me). John Berry seems to think that he has to wait until the flakes start to fall before acting, and the fruits of that policy were seen yesterday.

Hope John Berry is happy.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | January 27, 2011 4:22 PM | Report abuse

@WashingtonDame, I agree that it would likely be difficult to enforce these rules during heavy snow storms, but maybe enforcing them on moderate snow days would help to get the word out and get people in the habit of cleaning off their cars...but the more I think about it, the more I think the infrequency with which it snows in this region makes it less likely that drivers will get into the habit of clearing snow from their cars (or other safe driving behaviors that need to happen during snow storms).

The only other option I can think of is having news media outlets pitch in and every time they give a traffic report or report on the weather, have a catchy, quick way of reminding people to clear the snow from their car.

Posted by: informedtraveller | January 27, 2011 4:37 PM | Report abuse


I suggest that the news station state that you burn up to 500 calories when you completely clean the snow off your car. That's good motivation for most people around here. :)

Posted by: WashingtonDame | January 27, 2011 4:51 PM | Report abuse

"But you're dreaming if you think that increasing the penalties will help the situation. The police don't have the time or the resources to enforce these kinds of driving offenses on a good day, much less in the middle of a snowstorm."

This is no doubt true, but one reason why those sorts of laws can still be a positive thing is that in civil lawsuits courts may view those sorts of laws as persuasive evidence of the standard of care. For example, you fail to clean the snow off the roof of your car and it flies through the air and shatters my windshield and I crash. I have two witnesses in the car and another motorist who saw it stops to help (yeah, I know, what are the odds). I sue you and allege that your negligence in failing to clean off the snow makes you liable to me. If there is a statute in place requiring people to clean off all the snow, most judges will find it to be pretty persuasive evidence that it's negligent to fail to do so, especially when the purpose of the law is clearly to protect other drivers from the danger of flying snow missiles.

As I typed this, one notion that came to mind on how to increase enforcement was the notion of swearing in people as "snow emergency police." That is, the police force gets people--they can even be volunteers--who have police authority solely during snow emergencies and are allowed to ticket offenses such as failing to clean off the snow, etc. I tell you what, if I were out in the snow and I had been deputized in that manner, you're darn right I'd get out of the car to go ticket the box-blockers, especially if they were blocking my path. :-)

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 27, 2011 4:58 PM | Report abuse

@WD, that is nothing short of brilliant!

Posted by: informedtraveller | January 27, 2011 5:08 PM | Report abuse

An update to the "snow bonnets" on cars issue. This morning, at about 7:25 am, a caravan of DC police cars and SUVs went through the Missouri Ave & N. Capitol St intersection, lights and sirens on. EVERY SINGLE VEHICLE had snow on its roof! So much for enforcement by police. They can't even be bothered to clean the snow off their own cars and SUVs.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | January 28, 2011 9:06 AM | Report abuse

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