Time to get serious about preparing for winter travel

December 26, 2012

The Maryland State Highway Administration monitors travel conditions from its operations center near BWI Marshall Airport. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

[This post has been updated.]

The Capital Weather Gang says plain rain will win out this afternoon, which should ease concerns about the evening commute. But Wednesday morning’s commute through the wintery mix was enough to call out some of our seasonal advice to travelers in the D.C. area.

This isn’t the code red of winter travel advice. That’s the one where we remind drivers to know the snow crown off their roofs before it lands on the windshield of the following motorist. We’re not there yet, though I think at least part of the region should keep a close eye on the Capital Weather Gang’s Saturday forecast.

This is more the “Oh, yeah, I forgot about that one” set of tips to help travelers get back in their winter habits.These are some tips collected from the region’s transportation agencies.

  • Stay off the roads when you know a storm is arriving. You will be safer, and if congestion is reduced, the snow-fighting equipment will have a chance to treat and clear the roads. (The post-holiday traffic was so light this morning that there wasn’t much congestion, but do be extra careful this afternoon around the shopping and entertainment areas.)
  • If the forecast calls for rain to precede the snow, the highway departments won’t be able to treat the roads with brine. It just washes away in the rain. Those conditions should make drivers extra alert for an early build up of ice and snow on the pavement.
  • Think through your route before starting. If you’ve lived in a neighborhood for a while, you know the traditional trouble spots.
  • Don’t crowd the plow. Slow down and stay well back of snow-fighting equipment.
  • And even if there’s none around, slow down anyway, since pavement conditions can change within a short time and a short distance. (That was certainly true this morning. Watch your speed especially on bridges, stretches where the pavement is concrete and on curves.)
  • Shovel your walkways, but don’t push the snow into the street.
  • Be careful on the outdoor Metrorail platforms. As the Metro maintenance staffers so delicately put it, the old paving tiles have a very poor “coefficient of friction.” It’s easy to slip. (A lot of the maintenance work this year involved replacing the old tiles with a new style that’s much more durable and less slippery, but that job is not done.)
  • Recommended items for winter car trips: a shovel, jumper cables, snacks, a blanket or sleeping bag, a flashlight with extra batteries, a first aid kit, extra clothes, bottled water, a charged cellphone, kitty litter or other abrasives in case you have to get out of a slick spot.

 This update from Post reporter Tim Craig:

David Buck, a spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration, said the state deployed about 850 pieces of equipment including 200 in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, before sunrise to battle snow covered and icy highways.

But with the snow and sleet transitioning to rain in the Interstate 95 corridor, Buck said roads are in good condition around the District, though he urges motorists to slow down.

“There are very few issues in terms of slick roads or snow cover,” Buck said. “We have had a few crashes that have almost all been single vehicle crashes into guardrails, and that is just indicative of people going too fast for conditions.”

Buck said crews will highway remain out throughout the region throughout the afternoon to prepare for a possible refreezing of wet or slushy roads tonight.

As of noon Wednesday, traffic cameras showed wet roads in the District and the nearby suburbs, but snow still was falling in Baltimore and Frederick.

In western Virginia, Interstate 81 was treacherous, with several accidents reported according to traffic alerts from the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Joan Morris, a spokeswoman for VDOT, said about 400 salt trucks had been deployed in Northern Virginia. “They treated ramps and bridges and other trouble spots,” she said. “It’s supposed to change to rain shortly, but we are cautioning motorists to take it easy because it could be slick in different places.”
Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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