Storm Highway by Dan Robinson
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                   Friday, December 11, 2009 - 2:47PM

Road icing education point #1: "Common Sense"

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One of the unexpected things I'm finding as a major obstacle to progress in icy road awareness is some myths, misconceptions and prejudices held by many inside the weather community itself - including from professionals, meteorologists, storm chasers and enthusiasts alike. So, I am starting a regular feature on this blog (that will later become part of a FAQ on that will adress some of these myths. I don't want to come across as condescending or patronizing to my colleagues (if you get that impression, I apologize in advance), but I have some fairly extensive first-hand experience in chasing this hazard and the impacts it has on the public. Spending some real time outside observing this hazard will change your thought process like nothing else. In fact, I urge some of my storm chaser colleauges to do just that this winter. Don't just take my word for it - I think some of the things you'll see with your own eyes will really change your mind in ways you wouldn't expect.

That said, I feel I have some credibile information and empirical evidence to offer that counters some of the common misconceptions out there, and I ask for my fellow weather friends and associates to hear me out with an open mind.

Misconception #1: Common sense should prevent accidents

A common argument against implementing any changes or efforts toward mitigating the road ice hazard by introducing enhanced warnings goes something like this: Road icing is a common-sense issue. People should already know about the hazard and be able to identify it in advance. Those who crash fail to use common sense, and do not deserve any assistance in recognizing and respecting the danger.

One example I get is critics posting pictures like this:

And saying that if people can't see that and know they should slow down, then they are "idiots that don't deserve a license". I would agree with that statement if the above photo truly represented the typical high-fatality road ice hazard scenario. But it does not. Snow-packed roads during major storms have relatively low fatality rates, due to the fact that the hazard is not only visually very obvious, but the storm itself is typically well-publicized in advance.

The most deadly road icing scenarios instead look like this. These are a few images I have captured during the past two years of covering the subject:

Interstate iced over from freezing rain

Interstate iced over from freezing rain

Here is a video clip of the above scene.

Bridge iced over from freezing rain

Bridge iced over from light snow

Here is a video clip of the above scene.

Bridge iced over from freezing rain/sleet

Bridge iced over from freezing rain/sleet

Here is a video clip of the above scene.

Street iced over from freezing rain

Bridge iced over from freezing rain

Also, watch these video clips:

CLIP 1: This is dashcam video of me suddenly encountering a freezing rain-coated ramp after driving on wet pavement for miles. Even I was caught off guard by this! Surface temps had not been below freezing for long, and consequently I did not expect non-bridge surfaces to be icy: Dashcam Video Clip

CLIP 2: This is a demonstration video I filmed last winter of a bridge iced over from freezing rain: Icy Bridge Demonstration

These are scenarios where the hazard is either completely invisible to drivers, or at best very subtle. Unless the driver is keenly aware of the temperatures and/or the weather forecast beforehand, they will not recognize the hazard before it is too late. There is also a prevalent misconception among drivers that a light dusting of snow on the road is not dangerous - another item that disarms the 'common sense' factor.

'Common sense' requires solid knowledge and awareness of the indicators and threat levels prior to facing the hazard. The high death rates during icing events demonstrates that the common sense factor isn't working as it should. Improvements in warning drivers of the types of situations I have shown above will help increase awareness and refine 'common sense' - reducing the accident rates and attendant deaths and injuries.

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