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Driving in Winter Weather

With snow showers and slush in the forecast, I thought I'd publish this reader's observation about his drive on the Capital Beltway during the Jan. 21 snowfall, and a request that you let me know about your travel experiences in today's weather. (Either here, on "Get There," or in an e-mail to Before you leave today, check for current driving conditions on our Traffic Page.

Our highway departments actually take a lot of pride in their ability to prepare for and execute a cleanup, while travelers are always on the lookout for lapses. Here's what dismayed one motorist last time.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:
Unfortunately I had to travel on the inner loop of the Beltway from the Wilson Bridge to Tysons Corner on the evening of January 21st. This snow event was well-forecasted on three counts: timing-wise, intensity-wise, and total accumulation: A light snow fell from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. totaling approximately 1 to 1.5 inches.

When I drove this section of the Beltway from 6 to 7:20 p.m. I did not see a single salt truck. The event was well underway by this point. Some sections of the road had been salted, as evidenced by the lack of snow accumulation, but others appeared completely untouched. It appears the Virginia Department of Transportation did not keep on top of this relatively minor snow event.
Timothy Schott

Ryan Hall, a spokesman for VDOT, replied:

VDOT initially had 70 snowplows staged to treat the interstates by noon. VDOT crews began to treat the interstates with salt sprayed with liquid calcium chloride, a chemical that helps prevent water from freezing at lower temperatures, once there was a slight accumulation on the road surface.
For the first few hours there was not enough accumulation on the road surface for crews to begin plowing. There is a balance between treating the road and plowing. Once you plow the surface you pull up all salt and the road is more susceptible to freezing. VDOT crews continually treated the roadways and began to increase the number of snowplows. By 4 p.m. there were 250 trucks, although the number of trucks had risen throughout the day, so did the number of commuters and VDOT trucks were just like any other vehicle and were not immune from bumper to bumper traffic that plagued the area roadways on Sunday.
Once the snow stopped falling around 6 p.m., VDOT began to plow slush from roads and added 150 snowplows by 8 p.m. There were over 400 vehicles working around the clock to have the commuter routes and all the area park-and-ride lots free of ice and slush by the morning rush hour.

By Robert Thomson  |  February 1, 2007; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Driving  
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Oh well - it's my firm belief that if you cant drive in the snow, then stay off the roads. If your car cannot handle the snow, then don't drive it. I will never understand why people still insist on driving in it if they cant. They must love putting themselves and others in danger.

Posted by: T | February 1, 2007 1:40 PM | Report abuse

I can drive in the snow, but I got stuck on a seriously icy road. It is perfectly reasonable to expect VDOT to ice/plow the roads when the snow has been coming down for hours. I got on the road around 6, the beltway was fine, the but secondary roads had not been salted. Completely unacceptable.

Then again, I'm from New England, where perhaps response are quicker

Posted by: Disagree | February 1, 2007 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Regardless of what Mr. Hall says, VDOT did a horrible job of treating the roads for that storm. It was barely a storm, even by our standards. The fact that they pronounced their efforts a success the next day was a complete joke. According to the story written the next day VDOT had only slightly more trucks out on the roads than the dirtrict had, and the area they needed to cover isn't even comparable. Same story said Maryland had 1,100 workers on the task but didn't specify the number of trucks, DC had 150, VA had 250. Yeah, that'll get it done.

I drove from Dale City to Alexandria on I-95 at 2 PM and never saw a single salt/sand truck the entire way. 4 ambulances, 2 fire trucks and about 8 police cars responding to various accidents I did see. Dale Blvd was already very slick as were the HOV lanes.

I saw plenty of trucks on the return trip that started around 4, but it was too late.

Telegraph Rd? Sheet of ice.

Route 1? Had to be closed between Ft Belvoir and Backlick Rd.

Fairfax County Parkway? Covered in ice.

Dale Blvd? Sheet of ice so bad that it took an hour to go one "block" because of cars being unable to crest the ice covered hills.

These aren't neighborhood roads, they are major commuter routes. I wouldn't come and complain about my neighborhood not being plowed, it didn't need to be because there wasn't enough snow. But the roads needed to be pre-treated and treated as the snow comtinued to fall instead of letting it sit there and become compacted by the traffic until it was ice.

Posted by: Prophet | February 1, 2007 3:07 PM | Report abuse

"Dr." Gridlock always reports whatever the DOT, State, Metro, City Works, whomever tell him. There is never a hint of skepticism. Anyone who ever leaves their home know the roads and transit systems are nowhere near as good as their agencies always report.

Posted by: No fan of the Dr. | February 1, 2007 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Thanks VDOT for doing such a great job! I know you don't get nearly enough praise for the work you do. Instead, people are always quick to criticize. For all those people, stay off the roads! If you can't stay off the roads then SLOW DOWN! Perhaps some...if not MOST...accidents could have been avoided had people slowed down. I was on the Dulles Green Way and saw several accidents but not because the roads weren't treated. Maybe it was the idiot who flew by me at 65 mph or the show-off who thought he owed the road because he was driving an SUV or the moron who thought he could handle the snow just because he was driving an F350. There have been numerous times I'm disgusted by the number of salt trucks wasting money and time just sitting on the side of the road waiting for the snow to start falling. To be honest, Ive never understood that. I suppose I never will. But Im sure they have their reasons...maybe so they can be ready to go at a moments notice for the ungrateful people they risk their lives for. And just because you didnt see the trucks in your area doesnt mean they werent working someplace else. By the way, how many of you complained that they weren't treating the roads so you could get home, yet complained again in the morning because VDOT had done such a thorough job with clearing the roads that you had to get your butt into work instead of staying home? Im guessing there are more than a few of you! Cut VDOT some slack and STAY OFF THE ROADS! And how about a {Thank You} every now and again instead of always complaining? THANKS, VDOT! Keep up the good work!

Posted by: LF | February 1, 2007 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Add the Dulles Toll Road to that list. I had to attend a meeting in Reston that afternoon; it took 20 minutes to get there and 1.5 hours to get home. I had falsely assumed that the Toll Road would be treated, but it was not; by 3:45 p.m. the road was slick and icy, with no salt trucks in sight. I averaged about 15 mph on the Toll Road that day. I also passed three accidents between two exits. Drove safely and carefully and was able to make it home without incident, no thanks to the lack of salt trucks and the idiocy of fellow drivers (um, don't tailgate or drive at 50 mph on an icy road).

Posted by: surlychick | February 1, 2007 4:12 PM | Report abuse

It's largely about money, at least in VA. Over the last 10-15 years we have had periods of lower VDOT response than now, and one brief period of more active response. The active period happened when accident rates in VA were reported to be several times higher than in MD for the same event. A year or two later, the much higher cost (to pay for additional contractors) was noticed unfavorably and cuts happened again.
I can't remember any time when VDOT would even start on any truly secondary roads within the first 8 hours of an event, and 12-24 was more typical.
But this is of a piece with much else in VA. The desire-to-spend isn't on a par with New England. My personal grievance is that Fairfax doesn't require anyone to remove snow and ice from sidewalks. When an ordinance was proposed to the BOS a number of years ago, it failed because the Fairfax business community's lobbyists said the economic burden of shoveling snow would be unbearable.

Posted by: WW | February 1, 2007 4:15 PM | Report abuse

I was out and about on the previous snow - Sunday, January 18 - in the Tysons area (where I live). I did not see one salt truck or plow all day, and as I returned from Sunday errands around 7 pm, it took me 45 minutes to drive up 123. I passed 5 or 6 accidents, some serious, on 123 alone. Police officers were there, but plows/salt trucks were not. But that point it had been snowing for 6 hours.

At least it was a Sunday and not weekday rush hour. I can only imagine

Posted by: mfd | February 1, 2007 4:26 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, I was looking at the wrong month - it was January 21

Posted by: mfd | February 1, 2007 4:28 PM | Report abuse

I can attest that when I flew back to the DC area and drove home on FFX Cty Pkwy, it was a sheet of ice. There were 4 seperate accidents on my 8 mile drive home. NOT ONE VDOT truck was to be seen and I live a mile from the salt station. It was terrible that day. Trust me T, if I didn't have to drive home from the airport, I wouldn't of been skating on the ice that is otherwise known as FFX Cty Pkwy.

Posted by: elle | February 1, 2007 5:24 PM | Report abuse

Wow, the DC weathermen really got this storm right - look at all that snow and ice outside! Idiots. That goes double for schools opening two hrs late this morning.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 2, 2007 8:08 AM | Report abuse

I was out on Jan. 21, drove home on I-66 and was sliding all over the place, going 35 mph. I was sliding on 28 going 15. I was sliding on Braddock Road going 10. I slide down old Centreville Road without touching the gas.

The next morning, I pushed 15 cars up Old Centreville Road to get past the ice.

VDOT dropped the ball yet again. Looks like FEMA's next director will be the guy that handles the plows.

I drive those cool machines that clean the ice between periods at hockey games (Olympia). I have a lot of experience driving on ice with those and know what it takes to get somewhere safely. I also know how to drive in a slide. And when I lived in New York, was taught how to do a controlled slide.

Why is it in small-town NY, the roads are cleared when a foot of snow falls over night, and I mean ALL roads. But in Virginia, with only an inch of snow, I have to drive on compacted snow on a commuter route when they have overnight to clear and treat it.

Posted by: Jarrod | February 2, 2007 10:05 AM | Report abuse

I haven't had any problems this winter. I was out and about on Sunday the 21st and got stuck behind two salt trucks on Van Dorn Street. I stayed well back from them--that stuff is corrosive and will chip your paint--and I was amazed at how many morons tailgated them or tried to get me to pull closer. (I did pass them at the first opportunity to do so safely, though.)

As far as the schools go today, I wonder where the anonymous complainer lives. WTOP reported several cars flipping over on the ice. The conditions inside the Beltway ARE NOT accurate predictors of road conditions further out in Fairfax County. Drive on the back roads out near Clifton, or up near L'Auberge Chez Francois, the next time it snows and see what you think. (Why do you think the weather reports give the temperature at both Reagan and Dulles? Did you ever notice that Dulles is usually colder?) I can't blame the schools for erring on the side of caution--all it takes is for one school bus to skid and one kid to be hurt and all the parents would be screaming bloody murder.

Besides, I don't have kids, so I love it when the schools open late--fever cars on the road and no high-school drivers in the way in the morning!

Finally, all of you who think VDOT is bad should move to Durham, NC. I was at school at Duke during the "Blizzard of 1996." The streets did not get plowed because the city's snowplow broke down. Yes, you read that right--they have ONE plow for an area probably about the same size as Arlington County. Sure changed my perspective.

Posted by: Rich | February 2, 2007 11:04 AM | Report abuse

"fever cars on the road"

I meant "fewer cars," of course. Still getting used to a Dvorak keyboard. (The w and v are next to each other.)

Posted by: Rich | February 2, 2007 11:06 AM | Report abuse

I agree that Virginia was slow to respond to the snowfall and icy conditions that day. I too was on the Fairfax County Parkway that evening and the road had not been treated at all. Many cars were abandoned on the side of the road. Considering that we have had minimal winter conditions this season, one would hope that VDOT would be better prepared to properly treat major thoroughfares.

I know that VDOT never wins any praise for their good work, but this was really a bad situation that should have been better addressed.

Posted by: Fairfax | February 2, 2007 11:27 AM | Report abuse

Don't forget VDOT has hired "Contractors" to take care of a lot of the Interstates and Primarys. See what it gets you VDOT. But the Contractors are only going by what the contract instructs them to do have the road clear withing 48 hour AFTER an event.

Posted by: Driver | February 6, 2007 10:55 AM | Report abuse

Well Monument Drive in Fair Lakes VA wasn't even plowed by the following morning, it was a slushy mess at 8am. It's a somewhat major road (2 lanes each direction) so why it took a good 18+ hrs to take care of it is beyond me.

Posted by: Chris | February 6, 2007 3:24 PM | Report abuse

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