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                Thursday, January 30, 2014 - 11:46AM CST    Icyroadsafety.com blog RSS/XML feedIcyroadsafety.com Twitter FeedIcyroadsafety.com Facebook page

Report: Major winter storm in the Deep South, 1/28

Dan Robinson By DAN ROBINSON
Storm Chaser/Photographer
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I returned home Wednesday from another long trip to cover the January 28 winter storm in the South. Like the Texas event, this was a very high-impact, high-threat event due to the region of the country it was taking place in. The most significant impacts were in the Atlanta and Birmingham areas. As with the Texas trip, I learned more valuable details about southern US icy roads.

Documenting the event

I traveled to Montgomery, Alabama on Monday afternoon, and spent two nights in hotels in the city. On Tuesday (during the height of the storm) I observed the effects of freezing rain while moving east to Columbus, Georgia. Bridges iced rapidly in the morning in the Montgomery metro area, and caused numerous accidents. Bridges were slow to ice to the east, and authorities were applying brine and sand to many potential trouble spots. I then returned to Montgomery later that night as the changeover to snow occurred. All roads quickly became covered, and a sheet of compacted ice formed. I originally had planned to leave the area on Tuesday night, but the road conditions were too dangerous. I was finally able to exit the storm zone on Wednesday morning by traveling due west to Demopolis, AL, then north to Tupelo, MS.

Preliminary thoughts

The impacts from this storm were remarkable. My take on what occurred in Birmingham and Atlanta is this:
  • One, very light winter precipitation events suffer from perception-versus-reality problems nationwide, not just in the southern US. The light events (as little as trace/dusting) tend to be the highest impact ones, they happen many times during the winter, and result in the bulk of fatal crashes in the US. Most events don't make headlines like the more acutely extreme ones do (as in this case). Case in point, we had a 49-fatality light freezing rain event December 23-24, 2008 across the Midwest that barely made headlines (32 fatal crashes on the 23rd alone). Sub-warning criteria light freezing rain also has shut down or severely impacted the St. Louis and Pittsburgh metro areas in recent years.

    'Dustings' of snow routinely cause the worst serious/fatal accident rates of all events in large metro areas in the Midwest and Northeast US. Again, this is a perception problem - light events are seen as 'not that bad' by the public and meteorologists alike. I believe this perception may have contributed to authorities not acting on the forecasted conditions in the areas affected by the worst of the storm.

  • Two, the southern US has a 'skeleton crew' of de-icing infrastructure. Their current supplies and equipment are only capable of spot-treating small areas with sand (bridges and steep hills), and salt/brine is rarely available in meaningful quantities. Without external help, their infrastructure is hopelessly overwhelmed when the icing spreads beyond bridges.
What I hope comes out of the January 28th storm is a shift in the perception of the lighter winter precipitation events, and possibly notching up the wording and planning for these in terms of their potential impacts. I don't see anyone in particular as being to blame for this recent disaster. Forecasters did their jobs and issued the appropriate products. The light events have traditionally never been thought of in this way by most authorities or the public. A shift in thinking regarding the light winter precip events will help not only future storms in the south, but the ones that impact the rest of the country.


A multi-car pileup occured right in the middle of this scene outside of Prattville/Montgomery, Alabama on Tuesday morning, about 5 minutes after I turned the camera on another bridge nearby. Police had been slowing drivers at the other end, and it appeared everyone was heeding the warning. Apparently not! That was the only chance I had to capture anything compelling during this trip. There were no other safe places I could find to stop and film. You can see that accidents already had happened on the other bridge.

Icy bridge in Prattville/Montgomery Alabama

I came across this stuck 18 wheeler on the way home near Selma, Alabama. There were patches of slick spots like this all over the region. It was worse in the Birmingham/Tuscaloosa region, where like Atlanta, all roads were covered and impassable.

Icy roads in Alabama

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                Sunday, January 26, 2014 - 3:00AM CST    Icyroadsafety.com blog RSS/XML feedIcyroadsafety.com Twitter FeedIcyroadsafety.com Facebook page

Report: High Risk road icing event in south Texas/Louisiana

Dan Robinson By DAN ROBINSON
Storm Chaser/Photographer
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HD VIDEO: Tractor-trailer wreck & Texas icy slides caught on camera

I returned home Saturday from a grueling, intense trip to southern Texas to cover what is likely one of the worst types of road icing events possible. I learned many valuable details about southern US icy roads.

The "Perfect Storm" of road icing

This event was a 'perfect storm' of conditions and location, about as bad as it gets:
  1. Freezing rain: This type of precipitation causes dangerous, highly slick and hard-to-see icing on roads.
  2. Impacting an area immediately after a period of warm temperatures: Winter precipitation that falls following warm temperatures causes mainly bridge icing, which has a high element of surprise, catching drivers off-guard who are traveling full highway speeds.
  3. Light precip amounts: Because precip amounts were light, this was not going to be a major storm by most criteria. This often leads to a sense of complacency by drivers who are not expecting conditions to be very 'bad'.
  4. In a location where road icing is rare: This event was impacting an area that sees icy roads once a year or even less (Austin, Houston, Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast, etc).
  5. In a location where de-icing infrastructure is non-existent: There are no (or very, very few) salt trucks in the region, only a 'skeleton crew' of sand trucks.
If an SPC-style convective outlook level equivalent existed for road icing (the development and implementation of which I advocate), this event by far would qualify for a "High Risk" for its threat to life and property. To the credit of local National Weather Service offices, Winter Storm Warnings were issued well in advance that described the high threat for bridge icing. This no doubt made a major difference.

Documenting the event

I have long recognized the need to observe and document an icing event in the southern US, and I felt like this event was one of the most ideal I'd likely see for a long time. I left home on Wednesday night, spending the night at a hotel in Benton, Arkansas. I awoke at 10AM on Thursday to start what would end up being a 30-hour day, arriving in my 'staging target' of Tyler, Texas as darkness and a light snow fell. Reports of icing in Austin were already coming in.

In order to get into the zone of freezing rain, I slowly moved south as the evening progressed. I spent some time in College Station after midnight as the first waves of freezing rain moved across. Finding no problems there, I moved east to Huntsville, where bridges were beginning to ice as temperatures dropped. I continued south to Conroe, then east to Cleveland, TX at around 3AM. At this time, I witnessed my first accident of the night on a Highway 59 bridge in Cleveland. An SUV lost control on the bridge and struck the barrier. The vehicle was already out of view when it crashed, but the haunting sound of the accident was captured. I immediately ran up the embankment to the end of the bridge to signal at drivers to slow down. After about 20 more or so vehicles had passed (safely), the Texas DOT shut down the highway leading to the bridge, ending the threat at that location.

I continued south into the Houston metro, stopping at several locations to shoot video. As sunrise approached, the precipitation was ending in Houston, so I headed east on Interstate 10. All bridges were heavily iced and treacherous. At Winnie, I stopped at a location on Highway 73 that had two sets of bridges close together. Both sets of bridges were very heavily iced, and were by far the slickest bridges I had ever documented. I signalled at drivers entering the highway to slow down before encountering the eastern bridge, while shooting video of the western bridge. A tractor-trailer had already slid into the median at the western bridge. A second tractor-trailer then lost control on the western bridge and crashed into the median. This incident was captured on camera.

DOT crews arrived and sanded the eastern bridge. The DOT truck was apparently out of sand at this point, with its bed lifted up as high as it would go. This meant the western bridge remained untreated. I moved down to the western bridge to warn westbound drivers. A state trooper arrived and blocked the eastbound bridge. Wreckers arrived to pull the 18 wheelers out of the median.

Despite warning all of the westbound drivers (about 25 or so vehicles), one still lost control on the bridge and crashed. I captured this on camera, as did my car's dashcam. Finally, another police officer arrived and requested I move away from the scene.

I continued on to Beaumont. All of the east-west Neches River crossings were shut down due to ice, making them impassable. Unable to continue east, I headed north on Highway 96. Bridges here had been sanded. By now (noon Friday), drivers were keenly aware of the danger (at least in south Texas), slowing down at each bridge. As I moved north, the transition from freezing rain to sleet to snow was apparent. All bridges were still slick and covered. The deepest snow cover I observed was toward the very northern edge of the snow swath near Brookeland, TX. I finally was free of the road icing danger zone north of Carthage, and I was able to resume normal speeds. I arrived at my hotel room in Marshall, and ended my 30-hour day at 4PM Friday.

Preliminary thoughts

This trip was helpful in learning about southern US icing events. Meteorologically speaking, winter precip events are, of course, the same no matter where they occur. The biggest differences I observed in south Texas had to do with how the conditions are handled. There are no (at least none that I observed) salt trucks in this region, only sand trucks. This was my first experience observing sand being used on road ice. The sand of course does not melt or remove the ice, it only serves to provide minimal traction. Even the sanded bridges were still very slick and dangerous, to the point that drivers still needed to slow down to below 40mph to cross safely. This was especially true at the big highway interchanges that contain many elevated sections.

Another fact I learned is that many bridges in this region are simply left untreated. Apparently there is simply not enough sand and/or crews to treat everything. Authorities will shut down a bridge only when it has caused multiple accidents, if an accident is blocking the roadway, or if the bridge is simply so slick that it is impassable. At Beaumont, both the I-10 Neches River Bridge and the Highway 87/73 bridge in Port Arthur were closed, stopping all east-west traffic in the region.

The counterpoint to the region's lack of de-icing capability is that below-freezing temperatures do not typically last very long there (less than a day in most cases). The people simply deal with the conditions as best they can until warmer temperatures arrive and melt the ice.


This bridge over Interstate 10 east of Houston was one of the best illustrations of how truly invisible freezing rain icing can be. This bridge was extremely slick and dangerous. The gap in the pavement in the foreground marks the boundary between the ground-based road and the bridge surface. As you can clearly see, there is no difference in appearance between the wet road and the ice. This type of icing can fool even experienced winter drivers. Click the image to view full size:

Icy bridge in Texas

The tractor-trailer accident. The tractor began to slide sideways on the ice. When its wheels moved off of the ice onto wet pavement, the tires grabbed suddenly and pulled the rig hard to the left into the median.

Icy bridge in Texas

The pickup crash impact. This driver lost control due to a sudden accelleration while on the bridge, which caused the truck to start rotating sideways. The coating of ice on the truck itself is visible flying off upon impact.

Icy bridge in Texas

Aftermath of the tractor trailer accident. The guardrail was impacted and damaged.

Icy bridge in Texas

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                Friday, December 13, 2013 - 8:00AM CST    Icyroadsafety.com blog RSS/XML feedIcyroadsafety.com Twitter FeedIcyroadsafety.com Facebook page

Winter tires: not the solution for preventing icy crashes

Dan Robinson By DAN ROBINSON
Storm Chaser/Photographer
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Part of my research on the road icing subject has involved getting a feel for widely-held perceptions and beliefs. One of the most common I see is the stout belief that winter tires are the 'silver bullet' solution to the road icing hazard. "If everyone bought winter tires, these accidents won't happen". I will agree that winter tires are good, in the sense that they do improve traction and handling on snow and ice. But unfortunately, they aren't the solution to preventing accidents, for these two main reasons:

  • Winter tires don't make it safe to travel at highway speeds on icy roads.

    Most serious and fatal accidents on icy roads occur at highway speeds. Evidence shows that a major factor in many of these accidents is overconfidence in the capabilites of one's vehicle and its safety features, which leads to driving too fast for the conditions. Again, there's no doubt that winter tires will improve a car's traction and handling on snow and ice. But they don't improve it enough to make it safe to travel above 50mph on icy roads. One still will need to slow down!

    Furthermore, winter tires don't improve a vehicle's ability to stop or slow on icy roads, and fishtails that trigger a loss of control can still happen (the higher the speed, the easier it happens). A car with the best winter tires will still be a part of the multi-car pileups that happen due to traffic suddenly slowing or stopping. Start down a steep snow-covered hill with great winter tires, and you'll be sliding into the pile of vehicles at the bottom like everyone else!

  • Most accidents happen in parts of the US that only see icy roads a handful of times each year..

    The Great Plains and Midwest have some of the highest fatality rates during icy road conditions, but these conditions are present in these regions only a few days during the winter. In most years, snow and ice covers the road less than a dozen times, and usually for less than 12 hours at a time. For most people, going through the significant expense of purchasing and installing winter tires for these few instances doesn't make any economic and practical sense.

    There are places where snow and ice is present on roads frequently enough to make winter tires a good investment. These would include northern states, lake effect snow belts and higher elevations. But again, even the car with winter tires doesn't magically become immune to accidents.

Again, this isn't to disparage winter tires. They do help, and if you live in places where snow and ice on roads is common, they are a great thing to have. Just remember that they don't make a vehicle invincible, nor do they change the fundamental action needed to prevent an accident: simply slowing down to a safe speed when the conditions are present.

Great tips keep them coming.
- Posted by Kathleen from Centreville, VA

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                Monday, December 9, 2013 - 8:00AM CST    Icyroadsafety.com blog RSS/XML feedIcyroadsafety.com Twitter FeedIcyroadsafety.com Facebook page

Preliminary low estimate of December 3-9 toll: 40

Dan Robinson By DAN ROBINSON
Storm Chaser/Photographer
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Road Icing Deaths by State
December 3-9, 2013
State Deaths
Texas 5
Wisconsin 5
Indiana 3 each
Michigan 2 each
New Jersey
New Mexico
Arkansas 1 each
RAW DATA: Accident reports: Excel (XLS), OpenOffice

(Updated Wednesday at 1AM CST) At least 40 people have lost their lives on icy roads in the US since last Tuesday (December 3 to 9, 2013). This figure comes from a search of online news reports across the country, and therefore is likely a significant underestimate. Based on my research from 2008 to 2010, the news-report-derived icy road death annual average is 468. However, a recent report placed the number of weather-related crashes at 7,000 annually. While this figure also includes incidents caused by rain, fog, wind and dust, it's apparent that the news reports are not yielding a comprehensive total. Online news source searches are currently the only practical way I have to estimate the human impact of road icing, so it will have to do for now. A comprehensive study would likely be a full-time endeavor.

VIDEO: DOT camera captures Wisconsin pileup

While deaths are the most tragic impacts from road icing, there is also significant injury and property damage to consider. Injury accidents are almost impossible to count using news reports. Using ratios derived from single events in small areas, the death-to-injury ratio can be anywhere from around 1/50 to 1/200, meaning this last week's events could have injury numbers ranging from 1,500 to over 6,000 people. I have not been able to derive even a remotely reliable ratio for accidents and damage. I have noted news reports on single-day events within a single metro area ranging from a hundred to thousands of property damage accidents. Some of these events had fatalities, while some did not. Keep in mind that still many minor accidents are not reported. Even though it's tough to estimate a number, it's plainly apparent that the human impact from road icing is one of the most significant of all weather types.

Freezing rain was responsible for a large number of this past week's impacts. The highest death toll from a single event that I have documented since 2008 is the December 23-24, 2008 freezing rain event in the Midwest and Plains region, when at least 49 lives were lost. Freezing rain/drizzle is, by far, the most dangerous weather condition on earth, in terms of the number of deaths per hour that result while the condition is present AND the number of people it affects through the course of an event. It is for this reason that I believe freezing rain should hold a prominence and state of urgency, in the same way a tornado outbreak does. While I was out observing this recent freezing rain event in the St. Louis metro area, I witnessed the vast majority of drivers not driving at safe speeds for the conditions. Only the diligence of salt crews kept a disaster at bay. But salt trucks can't be everywhere at once, and not all events are so soundly forecasted in advance.

"Freezing rain/drizzle" should strike fear into everyone that hears it, in the same way a tornado warning does for most. This should be a condition that makes people stay home when they know it is threatening, learn to recognize its warning signs, and at the very least slow down significantly if one must venture out when it is in progress.

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                Friday, December 6, 2013 - 2:33PM    Icyroadsafety.com blog RSS/XML feedIcyroadsafety.com Twitter FeedIcyroadsafety.com Facebook page

The Top 7 Icy Road Myths

Dan Robinson By DAN ROBINSON
Storm Chaser/Photographer
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These are the most common myths about icy roads I see in various places, including forum discussions, media articles, video comments and more:

The Top 7 Icy Road Myths

Myth #1: Most serious icy road crashes are caused by careless drivers.

While it is true that some accidents on icy roads are the result of drivers not exercising due care in the face of a visually apparent hazard, the actual data shows that many cannot be classified this way. The reports show that it is everyday people, like you and me, who are driving at normal speeds when they suddenly and unexpectedly encounter ice and crash. Most of the more serious accidents result from drivers who were not operating their vehicles in a careless manner, but had no advance warning of an icing hazard being present before they encountered it. This is especially true for bridge icing, which will have few visual indicators until the driver is about to cross the bridge.

There is also currently not a high level of awareness of exactly how dangerous the road ice threat to life and property really is. It is viewed as, and often portrayed as by official sources and the media, a 'travel nusiance' that is simply an inconvenience for the motorist.

Myth #2: I'm a good driver, and I have the skill and experience to drive highway speeds in ice and snow conditions.

No one has the skill to drive at normal highway speeds on icy roads. A factor in many of the serious and fatal crashes is overconfidence in one's abilities and/or equipment (traction control, antilock brakes, stability control, good tires). Some feel that they have sufficient experience in winter driving, and can therefore continue normally (at or above the speed limit). But a fishtail on ice that occurs at highway speeds is usually unrecoverable by even the most quick-witted and experienced drivers. A person who enters a high-speed slide will quickly learn that it is something they can't handle - but all too late.

Any time you drive above 45mph on icy roads, your vehicle enters a highly unstable state on the brink of loss of control. At that point, all that is needed is some type of trigger to set in motion a loss of control sequence that you will most likely not be able to recover. That trigger can be a slight steering motion, a lane change, a gust of wind from a passing truck, a tap of the brakes or a push of the accelerator. Even below 45mph, the loss of control potential exists (namely with black ice) - the difference is at lower speeds, the chance of you leaving the roadway is reduced, and if you do hit something, the impact is less likely to cause serious injuries.

Read more on this topic: No vehicle can safely go highway speeds on icy roads

Myth #3: Winter tires, 4WD, AWD, stability control, ABS and/or traction control allow for safe travel on icy roads at highway speeds.

The reality is that there is no technology, no tire nor any vehicle type that allows SAFE travel on any type of icy road (snow, sleet or freezing rain) at speeds greater than 45mph. Not traction control, electronic stability control, 4WD, AWD, antilock brakes or the most expensive brand-new snow tires. While all of those safety features will improve a vehicle's handling and control to some degree, they do not eliminate the danger of losing control at highway speeds over 45mph in any type of road icing condition.

Infographic: No vehicle or driver is immune to icy roads!

Infographic (click to enlarge): No vehicle or driver is immune to icy roads!

Nearly all of the icy road accident fatalities I have documented have involved vehicles traveling at or above 45mph, with the vast majority occurring on interstates or rural two-lane highways. Many, if not most, of these vehicles were equipped with some or all of the modern-day safety equipment and features. I have personally witnessed, and captured on video (see it yourself), modern vehicles equipped with good tires, traction control, AWD and/or 4WD crashing on icy roads.

The general driving public has been poorly informed about this critical point. Most assume that icy road accidents are caused by either an inexperienced or reckless driver, or a vehicle with bad/worn tires. Advertisements for tires and vehicles with new safety technologies are misleading, showing cars speeding through snow with ease. This certainly is a contributing factor to road ice accident numbers, implicitly suggesting that the product allows a the driver to continue normally in icy conditions without a reduction in speed.

It all boils down to the laws of physics, specifically the coefficient of friction between rubber and ice. No tread pattern or computer program will change this fundamental law of nature. Driving above 45mph on icy roads is beyond the limitations of anything currently available to prevent a vehicle from fishtailing, oversteering, understeering or slowing/stopping on an incline.

Read more: Winter tires: not the solution to preventing accidents >
Read more: No vehicle can safely go highway speeds on icy roads >

Myth #4: People should buy winter tires, they would prevent most icy road accidents.

While winter tires certainly do improve traction and handling to some degree during icy conditions, they do not allow a vehicle to safely travel at normal highway speeds when roads are icy (see the previous myth). Most fatal accidents happen at high speeds, a condition that is beyond the limits of winter tires to completely prevent a loss of control.

Furthermore, the regions with some of the highest icy road injury and death incidence are places that see only a handful of winter precipitation events each season (in some cases, only 2 or 3 days per year). In these locations, it isn't practical or economical for all drivers in these regions to buy winter tires.

Read more: Winter tires: not the solution to preventing accidents >
Read more: Road ice risk zones: Plains, Midwest rank highest >

Myth #5: The worst icy road dangers are during big winter storms.

The road ice hazard isn't the minor fender-benders or slide-offs common during snowstorms. The real danger is the serious, highway-speed crashes during light icing events that take drivers by surprise.

When a major snowstorm hits, communities are typically highly aware and prepared for the event prior to its impacts. Schools and workplaces close. Highways officials close many of the high-speed roads, including the interstates, that are the usual spots for fatal icy road accidents. When the storm is in progress, the sheer amount of snow prevents vehicles from easily reaching the speeds that are often associated with fatal accidents. Most accidents in snowstorms happen at the onset of the storm or on its fringes, where accumulations are lower.

Snow accounts for the most icy road fatalities during the winter, but it is the minor events - from a dusting to a couple of inches of accumulation - that cause the most serious snow-related accident outbreaks. That little dusting at morning rush hour - the one that never makes the news until after it's caused chaos - are the ones to watch out for. With minor snowfalls, people tend to be in 'business as usual' mode, not as aware of the hazards as they'd be for a big storm.

Read more on this topic:
The road ice hazard defined: what it is, and isn't >
Big snowstorms are low-risk icy road events >

Myth #6: Salt, sand and plow truck crews are there to make roads safe for high-speed travel during snow and ice conditions, 100% of the time.

DOT salt and plow crews exist to keep roads passable during ice and snow conditions. They cannot be everywhere at once, and icy patches are still a threat even with rigourous plowing and salting. A treated and plowed road is nonetheless still not safe at highway speeds. Patches of ice are common on treated roads, and during heavier precipitation, treated roads can re-ice quickly.

It is never safe to travel at normal highway speeds during icy conditions, even with the best salting and plowing crews.

Myth #7: Icy roads are a bigger threat in colder climates where ice and snow is common.

The fatality and death rates per mile and per hour of winter precipitation events are actually higher in regions that only see a handful of snow and ice events each year.

Read more on this topic: Road ice risk zones: Plains, Midwest rank highest >

An icy road danger that is common in Montana occurs when there is a sudden warm up (chinook) after a period of extreme cold. If the dew point temperature rises above the pavement temperature, the road will become frosty and icy. This can occur with bare ground (no snow cover). Occasionally, it will contribute to a high number of accidents.
- Posted by Greg Forrester from Glasgow, MT

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                Wednesday, November 14, 2012 - 7:33PM    Icyroadsafety.com blog RSS/XML feedIcyroadsafety.com Twitter FeedIcyroadsafety.com Facebook page

Aren't icy road crashes caused by driving too fast for conditions, not ice and snow?

Dan Robinson By DAN ROBINSON
Storm Chaser/Photographer
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As we begin the 2012-2013 road icing season in the US, I wanted to challenge a common 'official' perception of what causes wrecks on ice and snow: people going too fast for conditions.

This one is a bit of a 'trick question'. Yes, driving too fast for conditions is part of the chain of events leading to loss of control. But calling it the cause, and leaving it at that, doesn't move us toward a solution. A deeper question needs to be asked: why are the drivers going too fast for conditions on ice or snow? The answers to that question can vary. Sometimes it's the driver's lack of awareness of the dangers ahead, such as is the case with bridge icing, the invisible icing from freezing rain and the subtle icing from light snow. Sometimes the driver is misinformed about the capabilities of their vehicle, such as you see when television ads show new cars racing through snow at high speed.

It's true that there are a few drivers that are going too fast due to simple carelessness and even recklessness (IE, the 'idiot driver' stereotype). But the data does not suggest that to be a factor in the majority of accident cases. The data suggests people driving normally and responsibly are caught by surprise when they lose control and crash at high speed. Remember, we're not talking about "obviously icy" snowpacked roads during big storms. The true road ice hazard is subtle and intermittent icing due to light winter precipitation, events that suffer from a lack of highly visual cues and public awareness. It is these conditions that cause the biggest percentage of deaths and injuries.

Attributing the root cause of road ice crashes to people driving too fast is similar to saying that plane crashes are caused by pilots failing to keep their aircraft in the air. We won't begin to have an impact on reducing accidents until we dig deeper than the status quo, finding the changeable root causes of why so many drivers are going too fast when they crash on icy roads. When we equip people with knowledge about the hazard in concert with a notification/warning when it is present, only then can we hope to see a reduction in accident rates.

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                Saturday, February 25, 2012 - 7:24AM    Icyroadsafety.com blog RSS/XML feedIcyroadsafety.com Twitter FeedIcyroadsafety.com Facebook page

Road icing news for January-February 2012

Dan Robinson By DAN ROBINSON
Storm Chaser/Photographer
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A roundup of few items and events of note during the past two months:

January 20 light freezing rain kills 2 in St. Louis, shuts down metro area

A very small freezing rain event, in terms of square mileage, occured on January 20. Despite the relatively small area affected, its impacts were high due to its timing and location: the St. Louis metro area right at evening rush hour. Hundreds of accidents occured, two of which were fatal. Accident numbers slowed by late evening, only because the icing became so bad that most untreated roads were either impassable, blocked by accidents or snarled by inching-along traffic. Once again, in this severe weather-prone part of the USA, road ice proves just as serious a threat as tornadoes, hail and high winds in terms of its impact to the public.

The following day, I found a wide, quiet and flat residential street that was still untreated. I took the opportunity to safely film some demonstration footage of how slick this type of icing makes the road surface. You can watch this video in full HD on Youtube by click the link below, then choosing the 1080p resolution at full screen.

HD VIDEO: Slickness of light freezing rain icing

Click for video

No tire, short of ones with studs, will provide any benefit to a vehicle on this type of ice. The coefficient of friction between rubber and this type of ice is so low that tread wear, pattern and road-tire contact surface area have absolutey no benefit in terms of preventing loss of control nor stopping power on an incline. Notice that in the video, the truck slides all the way to the edge of the road, even when traveling at a crawling pace - thanks to the very slight crowning of the road. Completely stopped vehicles can easily slide sideways off of roads on this type of ice if there is even a hint of a slope!

"Sudden grip" oversteer introduction

A phenomenon I'll be posting more on later is one I'm calling "sudden grip oversteer", a common sub-factor of road icing accidents. Sudden Grip Oversteer occurs when a car's front wheels have already lost traction, are sliding, and have been turned sharply in either direction - when suddenly the vehicle's wheels encounter a non-icy or lesser-icy patch of road. This results in the front wheels suddenly re-gaining grip, which violently whips the car in the direction the wheels were turned, which often induces an unrecoverable oversteer spinout or change of direction. Sudden grip oversteer is common when a car loses control on an icy bridge deck, then slides off of the bridge ice onto onto dry or wet pavement, at which point the wheels suddenly regain grip on the non-icy surface. If the car has rotated sideways or diagonally when grip suddenly is regained, the car will be violently jerked in the direction the front wheels are turned, sometimes rolling the vehicle or sending it quickly off of the road.

I have captured at least two of these types of incidents on video, I'll post more on this in a later installment of the blog.

January 11-13 light snow icing kills 20 from ND to PA

Icing from light snow and blowing snow has resulted in at least 20 fatal crashes during the 3-day period from January 11 to 13. This fast-moving system that dropped snow amounts generally under 3 inches was also responsible for thousands of accidents, many with injuries, across a swath from North Dakota through the Midwest to Pennsylvania. Reports suggest Illinois suffered the worst of the impacts, with 4 fatalities reported. Three of those occured in the St. Louis region, where the very light snowfall amounts nonetheless coated roads and brought the morning commute to a standstill. In Montana, a bus crash on I-90 resulted in 2 deaths and 8 injuries.

Light snow events are always more deadly than big snowstorms that drop large accumulations. A dusting of snow doesn't look as dangerous to drivers, who don't adjust their speed for the hazard. The resulting accidents are more serious, occuring at higher speeds that are more likely to cause injury and death. I was out covering this event in St. Louis, and as I have noted many times during storms like these, the general public-at-large was driving far too fast for the conditions. The top safe speed for the conditions was only 40-45mph, yet most vehicles were traveling 50 to 60mph or higher. At those speeds, loss of control happens much easier - and recovery of slides and fishtails is usually not possible.

A snow event illustrates the flipside of the road icing safety issue. Better warnings will help raise awareness of the more subtle events - but snow events like we saw this week typically receive better awareness levels due to advisories, warnings or media coverage. However, it is clear that the driving public needs better education on the need to reduce speeds when snow is covering the road.

A listing of the fatalities and their locations is as follows:

Dickinson, ND - 1
Fort Wayne IN - 1
St. John, IN - 1
Oswego, IL - 1
Marine, IL - 1
Roxana, IL -1
Lewistown, IL - 1
Boulder, CO - 1
Kimball, SD - 1
Missoula, MT - 2 (Bus)
Witoka, MN - 1
Uniontown, PA - 1
Muscatine, IA - 1
Eu Claire, WI - 1
Nelson, WI - 1
Spooner, WI - 1
Vienna, ME - 1
Jefferson County, MO - 1
Celina, OH - 1

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                Sunday, January 8, 2012 - 7:24PM    Icyroadsafety.com blog RSS/XML feedIcyroadsafety.com Twitter FeedIcyroadsafety.com Facebook page

Commentary on the recent viral WV pileup video

Dan Robinson By DAN ROBINSON
Storm Chaser/Photographer
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The recent viral icy road video in circulation of a camera-equipped car involved in a multi-vehicle pileup in West Virginia provides an opportunity to bring up a couple of points of discussion about a few common myths and misconceptions.

LINK: West Virginia pileup video (Language warning, mute the audio if necessary)

  1. The road conditions in progress illustrated snow icing, not "black ice". This may seem slightly nitpicky, but the icing in this video was not 'black ice', but rather pure snow. 'Black ice' is the visually stealthy phenomenon created by freezing rain, freezing drizzle and freezing fog. See Types of road icing and causes and a picture of what actual "black ice" looks like.
  2. MYTH: Driver skill can prevent ice-related accidents at high speed. TRUTH: Avoidance of high-speed icy road collisions is usually more related to luck/chance and less about driver skill. Comments on the video largely praise the camera car's driver (Mitsubishi Evo) for his skill in avoiding a collision while disparaging the driver of the neighboring vehicle (Ford Flex) for colliding with the minivan. The reality is that the chance positioning of the stopped vehicles, and the lane the moving vehicles were in, was the sole determining factor of the outcome. Both vehicles (and the 18-wheeler) equally were traveling too fast to safely avoid the accident - the camera vehicle (Evo) was able to avoid a collision simply because it was in the left-hand lane, and only *by chance* had a clear path to avoid the stopped vehicles ahead. If any of the stopped vehicles were resting a few feet to the left, the Evo would have not been able to avoid colliding with them. The Flex simply had nowhere to go and could not have possibly avoided a collision, skill/technique or lack thereof, had no role in the outcome.
  3. Both vehicles were traveling too fast for the conditions. While evidence indicates that the intermittent snow squalls in progress at the time would have resulted in a rapid transition from clear roads to snow-covered roads, this transition zone would still have been just gradual enough for vehicles to see it coming and react. It is obvious from the video that many vehicles did not slow down upon encountering the first signs of snow on the road, continuing on at highway speeds despite the worsening conditions (the engine on the camera vehicle can be heard throttling down only after the accident ahead is visible, by then too late). The reasons for this widespread behavior are probably deeply rooted in the current public perception of the road ice hazard as merely a nusiance, and not the real threat to life and property it truly is. Drivers feel that their vehicle can continue on at highway speeds as a result of tires, antilock brakes, traction control or stability control. In reality, none of these technologies allow for safe highway speed travel on icy roads. See the article No vehicle can safely go highway speeds on icy roads.

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Recent Blog Posts
- Report: Major winter storm in the Deep South, 1/28 - January 30, 2014
- Report: High Risk road icing event in south Texas/Louisiana - January 26, 2014
- Winter tires: not the solution for preventing icy crashes - December 13, 2013
- Preliminary low estimate of December 3-8 toll - December 9, 2013
- The Top 7 Icy Road Myths - December 6, 2013
- Aren't icy road crashes caused by driving too fast for conditions, not ice and snow? - November 14, 2012
- Road icing news for January-February 2012 - February 25, 2012
- Commentary on the recent viral WV pileup video - January 8, 2012
- Significant road icing outbreak: Monday, January 2, 2012 - January 2, 2012
- No vehicle can safely go highway speeds on icy roads - December 23, 2011
- Another case for "Road Ice Warnings": December 8-9, 2011 light snow event - December 10, 2011
- A big thanks to those helping raise road icing awareness - November 18, 2011
- 15 road icing deaths in the past week: estimating the full impact - November 4, 2011
- 2011-2012 road ice season in the US already in full swing - October 22, 2011
- Coming this winter: another 2011 tornado season toll - July 21, 2011

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