Snowstorm in Washington area causes accidents, cuts short work- and school days

Ice-slicked roads created treacherous conditions blamed for at least one fatal accident in the South on Thursday as wintry weather headed up the East Coast.
By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 8:49 PM

A fairly typical December snowstorm glazed the region's highways with a crusty white crud that caused scores of fender benders as people cut short the workday and many school systems shut down early.

In most places, there was too little snow to plow and it landed on frozen pavement that caused chemically laced salt to work more slowly, transportation officials said.

Many roads in the Washington area were pretreated as the storm advanced, but slippery conditions slowed traffic to a crawl on major highways and side streets alike.

"Until you get more than a couple of inches, it's not effective to plow," said John Lisle of the D.C. Department of Transportation. "We saw this thing coming. We began pretreating a couple of days ago, and we had salt trucks out today by 10 a.m. When the road surface is frozen it takes more to melt the snow."

Joan Morris of the Virginia Department of Transportation echoed Lisle.

"Motorists think that pretreating will mean the road is going to be free and clear when it snows," she said. "It does not. But it gives us a leg up when the snow begins falling."

Morris said VDOT doubled the number of trucks it had planned to deploy as the forecast worsened Wednesday night.

There was no evidence that drivers had become any more snow savvy because of the repeated and record-setting snowfall last winter. The Maryland State Police had recorded dozens of crashes by mid-afternoon.

"They're all minor in nature, but there have been multiple crashes because of people going too fast," said State Police Maj. Greg Shipley. "No serious injuries except for one up near the Pennsylvania line."

In Virginia, state police had recorded 580 crashes statewide by noon, most of the slide-and-crunch variety, with few resulting in serious injuries. The Loudoun County sheriff's office responded to 40 crashes - most involving vehicles that slid off the road or into another car, none with serious injuries - and more than 25 disabled or stranded vehicles as the storm swept in from the south

Cars poked along on Interstate 95 in Maryland, although the snow had been reduced to slush along the shoulders of much of it.

"Traffic is heavy in a lot of places because people are heading out from work early," said Charlie Gischlar of the Maryland Department of Transportation. "It's moving at a crawl in some places. That's a good thing, because we don't want people trying to go too fast in these conditions."

School buses were back on the roads by early afternoon, as most school systems closed early and canceled after-school activities. Federal offices remained open, but employees were allowed to leave early.

One of those buses skidded down a hill in New Carrolltown. As New Carrollton police were helping children from the bus, a driver crashed into a police vehicle.

No injuries were reported, according to Tanzi West Barbour, a spokeswoman for Prince George's County schools.

Staff writers Michael Birnbaum and Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.

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