Storm Highway by Dan Robinson
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                   Monday, February 22, 2010 - 2:15AM CST

Icy road season update

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LINK: Current media-based road ice fatality stats

The media report-based icy road death toll for this winter passed the 400 mark this weekend - but according to the US Department of Transportation, the actual number could be more than three times higher (1,300 deaths/year, 116,800 injuries/year). I've been basing my stats on fatal accidents reported by the news media - using newspapers, magazines and TV station web sites currently indexed by Google News. As such, my number is and always has been an absolute minimum. I have always known that my method would likely be missing an indeterminate number of incidents due to certain media outlets not being indexed, and accidents in remote areas not receiving any news coverage. I have no way of knowing how high this descrepancy actually is. I will be contacting the USDOT this week to get some more information about where their data is coming from, and if they have more detailed information. I don't doubt their figures, but it would be beneficial for the cause if the data is already being compiled by an entity with funding and personnel to do it thoroughly.

I am also planning on doing some charts based on my data, showing the results of seat belt usage and type of crashes. Though I won't have a hard percentage value until after the season is over, I can state the following facts based on the current data:

  • Head-on collisions by far account for the majority of fatal icy road crashes. I estimate that head-ons may be at or higher than 50% of all crashes causing death. Most of these crashes occur on two-lane, undivided highways. Some occur on interstates without cross-median barriers. Due to the severe impact forces, vehicle make/model/type and seat belt use usually do not play a role in survivability of a head-on crash. Most head-on crash deaths occur in the loss-of-control vehicle, as it is usually struck on the side or at an angle, while the other vehicle bears the impact from its front.
  • Rollovers account for the vast majority of the remaining percentage of fatal icy road crashes (I'm estimating about 30 to 40 percent). SUVs and pickup trucks are more likely to roll, but the stats show all types of vehicles also flip regularly. In this type of crash, seat belt use does play a very significant role in their survivability. Most rollover deaths recorded in the statistics involve unbelted occupants who are ejected from the vehicles.
  • Rural areas see the majority of fatal crashes. Speed is a primary factor in crash severity and death rates, and since speed limits are higher outside of cities and towns, fatal crash numbers are much higher in these regions.
In a nutshell, driving on a two-lane road out in the country is where most people are losing their lives in icy road crashes. The risk is high everywhere, but the data shows a high concentration in the rural two-lane configuration.

This year vs last year: similarities and differences

The severity of this winter has meant more snow events and fewer major freezing rain episodes this season (more cold air at all layers). Consequently, we don't have a two-day death toll this season like December 23-24, 2008 (49 deaths). However, the fatal crash totals have stayed uncannily identical to last year. This season has hit the 200, 300 and 400 mark at nearly the same day of the year as last season. The difference is that the crashes have been more spread out in both time and space. Snow has a much lower death rate per hour than freezing rain does, but the sheer number and coverage of snow events has kept this year's toll on par with last year.

Once again, the Midwest leads the nation in icy road deaths - as above, likely a result of the more rural nature of the region (where high-speed icy road crashes are more likely). Major localized differences this year include:

  • Oregon: At 17 fatalities, Oregon's season has been far more deadly than last year, when they recorded only 7.
  • Nebraska recorded only one icy road death last year. As of today, they are up to 22 for this season, tied with Missouri for second-deadliest icy road state in the USA.
  • Indiana: Last year, Indiana was far ahead of every other state with 50 icy road deaths. Now, the state is only at 11 so far this season. I believe this is due to Indiana seeing far less freezing rain events this winter than last year, when several major high-fatality icing events occured in the Midwest.
  • The South: The deep south (Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi) has been hit very hard this winter compared to last year, with abnormally colder temps and frequent snowfalls. Alabama saw only one reported death last year - this season, Alabama is already an 'orange state' on the map with 11 icy road fatalities.
I will have another post to this effect on as soon as I'm able to get the data from the USDOT - stay tuned! If their 1,300 figure is right, that makes road icing the absolute number one weather-related killer in the USA (including heat waves).

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