Winter storm guide for roads, transit

By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 11, 2010; 5:18 PM

Two weeks ago, we told you what our local transportation departments say they can do for you during a winter storm. Here's a look at what you can do for yourself when the Washington area is hit with snow or ice. This advice comes from transportation officials, Metro maintenance staff, plow drivers and ordinary travelers who have been getting around the area for years.


Before driving. Get snow or ice off the vehicle, including the roof and side windows. You will be doing yourself a favor, because you will be able to see all around. And you'll be doing other drivers a favor, because they hate it when cars finally pick up speed and lose that crown of snow on top.

Also, be sure the battery is charged. Check wiper blades, tires, tire jack, antifreeze and lights. Keep gas tanks at least half full. Carry an emergency kit that includes a small shovel; a bag of rock salt, sand or cat litter; a scraper and brush; a flashlight with extra batteries; jumper cables; blankets; and a first-aid kit.

When driving. Don't use cruise control, allow extra room for stopping or for taking evasive action, turn your lights on and use your turn signals. Stick with the main roads as long as you can rather than detouring onto secondary routes.

Watch for pedestrians. During heavy storms, the streets may be in better condition than the sidewalks, so pedestrians will hop over snowbanks and walk wherever they can.

Don't crowd the plow. Plow operators ask, What's the point of trying to get ahead of trucks that are making the road behind them safer to use? Also, a plow operator has blind spots, especially behind and to the left.


Metrorail: Metro clears the areas around rail station entrances, but the walk to the entrance may be a struggle. Platform paving tiles can be treacherous beneath ice and snow. Metrorail will shut above-ground service when the snowfall reaches eight inches, so watch for announcements and be prepared to adjust your schedule.

Metrobus: Metro does not plow around bus stops. Bus routes and schedules become very fickle in snow and ice. Seek out buses that follow snow emergency routes. Don't rely heavily on the NextBus information system. It can't account for detours or traffic incidents.

MetroAccess: Car and van service for riders who are disabled operates in bad weather, but as conditions deteriorate, trips are canceled. People with appointments should seek status updates.


Clearing sidewalks. Rules vary, but most jurisdictions expect property owners to get out within a certain number of hours and clear their sidewalks. They don't expect you to throw the snow in the street. When clearing the driveway, toss the snow to the right. That makes it less likely the plow will push that snow right back across the driveway entrance.

Clearing streets. Much of the clearing work goes to contractors, whose trucks might not bear the emblem of the agency that hired them. The D.C. departments of public works and transportation team up on street clearing in the city. The Virginia Department of Transportation takes care of interstates, main roads and neighborhood streets within its turf. The Maryland State Highway Administration handles the state's numbered roads, while counties and municipalities take care of the rest.

Snow emergency routes. Some jurisdictions require owners to get their vehicles off snow emergency routes after the jurisdiction declares an emergency. This affects many District residents, where the Public Works Department tows vehicles remaining on those routes and imposes stiff fines.



Before leaving home, check conditions by going online to There, under the Ice & Snow logo, you'll find a link to a list of all the county highway department phones. Click on the CHART information center to find more snow emergency information, traffic camera views, weather updates, maps showing average travel speeds on highways and road-closing reports. Go to "Contact Us" and click on the "Service Request" link if you spot a problem. There's also a Winter Storm Hotline at 800-327-3125 for updates on conditions. Maryland also sends out road information on a Twitter feed:!/MDSHA.

The District

Monitor media reports in case a snow emergency is declared or trash and recycling pickups are suspended. To report problems, call the D.C. Service Request Center at 311, or go to the District Department of Transportation Web site at and click on the Service Request Center button in the upper left. There's also a button marked Traffic Alerts. DDOT has a very active Twitter feed, at!/DDOTDC .


To report road hazards or to ask questions about the state roads, call 800-FOR-ROAD (800-367-7623). The 511 traveler-information service provides updates on weather and road conditions. Call 511 from any phone in Virginia, or go to and view traffic cameras, a map of road conditions and a detailed road condition report. The 511 system also has a very active Twitter feed, at!/VaDOT .


Metrorail, Metrobus: Go to Metro's home page at and look at the lower left for the link that will allow you to sign up for e-mail alerts. Service updates are available by calling 202-962-1212. Report a problem by calling 202-637-1328. Check Metro's Twitter feed at!/metroopensdoors .

MetroAccess: Passengers with scheduled rides should call 301-562-5360 for a status update.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company