Snow problem: It’s not if people don’t get on the roads at the same time they’re being converted into ice rinks

February 15, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 15, 2014

On Friday, I wrote about my (very modest) snow-day misadventures. But I wanted to write a bit about the much more significant troubles that the South, and in particular my corner of it, have handling snow.

In Durham, North Carolina, a lot of area businesses and schools seemed to close around 11:30 a.m. Wednesday. This appeared a bit silly to me at the time, but it turned out to be a great call. As previously noted, the snow started around a quarter to 1 that afternoon, and visibility and road conditions deteriorated very quickly.

So what happens when snow starts during business hours? Typically, lots of people jump on the roads to go home — the same roads that have suddenly become unsafe to travel, the same roads that are not scaled to handle virtually everyone traveling on them at the same time, and the same roads that, in most of the South, there are very few snowplows to clear.

We’ve seen this movie before. At the end of January, a mid-day snowstorm paralyzed traffic in Atlanta and other parts of the South. Not too long ago — I think this was late winter 2013, but I’m not sure — snow started falling in the New York City suburbs where I grew up in the late afternoon on a business day, and my parent and I spent about two hours struggling to make a car trip that normally takes no more than half an hour.

Nine years ago, on Jan. 19, 2005, a Wednesday, Raleigh, N.C., got a very light coating of snow starting around 3 p.m. The ground temperature was so cold that roads in Raleigh basically flash-froze. This caused massive gridlock; as was the case in Atlanta and elsewhere the South last month, the icy roads left some students trapped at schools overnight.

The same scenario played itself out this past Wednesday around the Triangle. (That’s Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, N.C., for the uninitiated.) Flakes started falling in the early afternoon; lots of people jumped into cars and headed home; everything almost immediately jammed up as snow and volume overwhelmed the roads. If you haven’t yet seen this iconic picture of a burning car on a snowy, vehicle-strewn stretch of Raleigh’s Glenwood Avenue, a.k.a. U.S. 70, it’s definitely worth a look; it aptly captures the chaos and gridlock that gripped area roads Wednesday afternoon.

(That picture, by the way, was taken by a woman who spent approximately three hours to travel just two miles or so, according to this WRAL story and this Google map.)

These episodes have some commonalities — namely, they all involve roads getting coated with snow and/or ice during business hours, resulting in huge traffic jams.

What should we learn from these fiascos? Simply put, this: Get people home before the weather turns the roads into skating rinks.

This isn’t always easy to do. For one thing, it means closing schools and businesses and sending people home while the conditions are still good. This requires readjusting schedules and inconveniencing people at a minimum; in most cases, organizations must forsake significant revenue and productivity.

For another thing, it means guessing just when road conditions are about to turn south. (Pardon the pun — or on second thought, don’t.) This involves some guesswork, of course; USA Today’s account of Raleigh’s 2005 snow-induced gridlock notes that forecasters were surprised by the light storm.

But it’s worth taking a chance on looking foolish, and it’s also worth sacrificing time at work and school. Taking risks, making hard decisions and relinquishing productivity are what it takes to help societies run smoothly.

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