(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.
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.