But there is a very positive and important story that the media has given very little attention to: that our local roadways, and particularly the more traveled ones, are immeasurably safer today than a few decades ago when snow and ice occurs. And as we will shall see a lot of credit goes to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and forward-thinking localized DOTs like Seattle's (SDOT).
I got a feel for the issue when I arrived at the UW as a young professor during the 1980s. Quite regularly I got calls from local attorneys....some from the private sector, some with the State or local government... asking for help with cases dealing with weather. I quickly learned that the overwhelming majority of these forensic meteorology cases dealt with automobile accidents on icy roads.
As I finished more and more cases, an interesting issue became apparent: although many of the accidents were associated with poor driving (generally excessive speed during icy/snow conditions), many were associated with inadequate responses of Departments of Transportation. Many plow/sander drivers were inadequately trained (for example, not understanding that bridges ice up first), weather information on or near key roadways were lacking, and equipment/personnel were often inadequate. Injured parties were winning huge settlements from the State and local DOTs. We could do better...muchbetter.
Perhaps the most notable example of a very inadequate response to snow and ice occurred in Seattle during December 2008. What happened was close to criminal: avoidance of salt, rubber tipped blades on plows, pushing the snow into the center of the street, among other sins. Much of Seattle was impassable. Rutted, ice-clogged roads certainly cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars, large numbers of accidents, and unnecessary accidents and injuries. My friends at WSDOT shook their heads when I asked them about the city's response. Mayor Nickels lost his job as a result.
Seattle December 2008: A terrible tragedy was narrowly avoided.
But the situation today is extraordinarily better today and I would like to tell you how. During the 1990s WSDOT put substantial efforts into improving their ability to deal with snow and ice. They began installing large numbers of weather sensors along major state highways (see map), part of the Road Weather Information System (RWIS) and created real-time web pages with weather information.
Locations of WSDOT weather sensors
WSDOT provided grant support to my group and others at the University of Washington to help educate their staff in the field and to create tutorials on roadway icing (here). And since educated motorists are safer motorists, they supported our creation of web page such as the I90 page that puts all kinds of roadway and weather information on a single web site (see graphic)
It is clear that WSDOT's efforts have reduced the number of ice/snow-related accidents on major highways, certainly the number of legal cases on this subject has dropped (and I am include other meteorologists who do this kind of consulting as well).
In Seattle, the changes in the management of roadway ice/snow have been revolutionary. Mayor McGinn (for obvious reasons!) dedicated substantial resources to ensure that the city would not be crippled by modest snow, as it had been in 2008. He started by hiring a first rate management team as SDOT, folks that had deep experience with snow/ice management. The amount of equipment was substantially increased and the decision was made to use salt when needed to melt roadway snow/ice. Snowplow blades were unsheathed and aggressive pretreatment was inaugurated to prevent the unremovable ice of December 2008, and large stockpiles of sand/salt/deicer were acquired.
Seattle snowplows are ready!
Furthermore, the City put temperature sensors into critical Seattle roadways and supported the development of the SNOWWATCH web site, which brings all the snow-related weather information together for its effective use by city maintenance personnel and Seattle residents (below).
The Seattle Times was so impressed with the city's response to the January 2012 snow event that it provided positive coverage (which it rarely did for any of Mayor McGinn's activities). Whatever you think of Mayor McGinn, he left a legacy of greatly improved capability and responsiveness to snow events.
The city's new approach to snow and ice removal, and particularly the use of salt, has gotten national attention, including great praise from the famous SALT GURU (click on image below).
Both WSDOT and SDOT did very well with last Friday's "snowstorm", with only minimal disruptions on major roadways.
When you couple the far better maintenance/response regarding our roadways during ice/snow situations with the improved safety of the new generation of cars (many of which have vehicle stability control with substantially reduces the changes of skidding), vehicle-related accidents related to snow and ice have clearly dropped. There will always be folks that drive too fast for conditions and get nailed. But improvements in prepared our roadways for snow/ice events and the professional responsiveness of WSDOT/SDOT and others should be acknowledged and appreciated. Not only are lives saved, but the economic value of such efforts are huge, far eclipsing their modest costs.