You can find a large number of alarming videos on the Internet showing cars crashing on snowy roads. We can see from these videos that driving too fast on snow or ice covered roads is risky and leaves you vulnerable to crashes. However, it’s not just fast driving that causes accidents, but also failure to take proper care in these types of conditions.
If we want safe roads during the winter months, two things are needed. First, it is necessary (but not sufficient) that if we are driving on winter roads, we should slow down and take more care than we would on those same roads on a bright summer day. Second, we need our highway agencies to take actions that improve the road conditions, removing any snow and ice that may be on the roads so they get back to those “summer day” conditions as quickly as possible.
The safety issue is a substantial one. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation show there are about 115,000 people injured every year on snowy, slushy or icy pavements. More than 1,000 people are killed each year on winter roads. Those are troubling statistics.
The good news is that highway agencies have a variety of tools they use very effectively to restore our roads to a safe condition quickly. Studies show a good winter maintenance program that uses road salt reduces accidents on winter roads by about 88 percent.
The science of winter road maintenance
Highway agencies are not resting on their laurels when it comes to their winter maintenance activities. A key goal for many agencies is tracking in great detail what they are doing during their winter maintenance actions, and ensuring their actions are optimized to meet their goal of safe roads for the driving public. In Idaho for example, new salt spreading units allow them to track how much salt they apply to the road, and other sensors allow them to check that the road is responding as expected to the salt application and is not getting slippery. That gives them two benefits — reduced costs (they’ve seen a 29 percent reduction in their annual winter maintenance costs since introducing the new technology) and improved safety to the tune of a 27 percent reduction in accidents on winter roads.
The flip side of safety is mobility. Obviously if nobody drives on the roads there will be no accidents, but we have come as a society to rely on our highway network for commerce and quality of life. Other studies show the cost of having that network closed down is substantial — between $300 and $700 million a day for a state in direct and indirect earnings. So keeping those roads open (maintaining our mobility if you will) in a safe and sustainable manner is an extremely important benefit of winter maintenance. One study suggested that the costs of maintaining the road system during a winter storm are completely recovered in the first 25 minutes of winter maintenance activities because of the improvements in safety and mobility that the improved road conditions bring about.
The responsibility for safety and mobility on winter roads is not just in the hands of the highway agencies. We, as road users, have a responsibility to drive at an appropriate speed, and be prepared for the worst case scenario. Many agencies present hints on what you should have in your car on a winter trip. For example, Washington State Department of Transportation (DOT) suggests having a flashlight, batteries, a blanket, snacks, water, gloves, boots and a first aid kit, as well as a few other steps we can take to add to our safety.
We now have more tools than ever at our disposal to allow us to see what conditions the roads are really in. Some DOTs provide up-to-date photos from their snow plows so you can actually see what the snow plow is seeing as it goes about making the road safe for you. And in the future there will no doubt be even smarter technology out there to help us in winter driving. But as the winter moves on, we might want to think on those crash videos on the web, and resolve that we will not be starring in one any time soon.