It is like a chain reaction. First comes the snow. Then come the ice and slush resulting in hazardous road and street conditions. Finally, there are stalled and stuck cars and countless frazzled commuters.
Winter in the Washington area usually generates lots of business for tow truck operators and a large number of complaints directed at highway officials responsible for clearing roads. The last week had proved no exception.
By yesterday business for towing operators had slowed somewhat, but was still reported brisk. In some places, especially in Fairfax County, secondary roads remained icy and hazardous.
As a result, the Fairfax office of the Virginia Highway Department was getting between 90 and 100 calls an hour about bad road conditions, according to Donald Keith, director of the office.
Keith said he believed many of the problems occurred because ". . . People are not mentally or physically prepared for the snow."
At least one county resident, Jane Kinslar of 2055 Wethersfield Ct. in Reston, thought Keith was oversimplifying a not-too-simple problem.
"I have snow tires. I drive carefully, but it's just a mess around here," she said, pointing to the snow-covered four-lane Sunrise valley Drive in Reston, which four days after Thursday night's snow remained largely covered with packed snow. No sand had been placed on the snow.
"The main roads are fine," she added, "if I just had a helicopter to get out to them."
Keith said motorist need snow tires or chains in order to drive safely on many of the county's 1,700 secondary roads. He said plows had been clearing snow but were useless on packed-down snow. He also said that sanding was being done at night but could not be done during the day because thawing caused the sand to "sink right down and then it doesn't do a bit of good."
He said between $60,000 and $65,000 has been spent in the last week on snow clearing operations in Fairfax.
Montgomery and Prince George's county authorities reported similar problems, but added that motorists are safe driving almost anywhere - as long as they have snow tires or chains. Both counties also reported numerous complaints about snow removal operations.
Meanwhile, area tow truck operators have been kept busy around the clock since the new year's first big snow 10 days ago.
Depending on which tow truck operator a motorist calls, the extra business is a blessing, a curse or something in between. All those in the Washington area with tow trucks said they have received a barrage of phone calls during the last 10 days, which have seen two significant snow storms hit the area. But some said they haven't done nearly as well as people might imagine.
"The thing people don't realize is on a snowy night we probably don't get to about 90 per cent of our calls," according to Frances Stevens, who with her husband runs Bob Stevens Exxon in Northwest Washington. "The traffic is terrible and it takes us just as much time to get around as other people. And it we get stuck, we're in big trouble.
"The cold weather creates a lot of business because people have troubles with their engines and their batteries, but the snow is really a deterrent when it's heavy," Frances Stevens said.
Heavy snow one night means bad roads the next day, however, and many operators find business most brisk a day or two after the snow falls because of cars getting stuck on unplowed roads. Tow truck operators said yesterday the volume of calls has doubled - in some case tripled - since the first big snow of the new year a week ago Friday.
"There's no question the business is there," said Ray Sanders of Key Bridge Exxon."I would say our calls have about tripled. But in heavy snow you can't tow. All you can do is try and pull them out or get them started - that's if you can get there."
Since many motorists who call often just need a start or a push, operators in the area have minimum charges. Some are as low as $8.50 for responding to a call, others as high as $20. In the suburbs, many people need to be towed out of their driveways and no farther.
Al Coleman, night manager at Day's Gulf Service Center in Bethesda, said, "How much we charge for something like that depends on the driveway, how far we have to go and how tough the job is. The minimum is $10."
The operators had varying opinions on the demeanor of their customers - "I think they're patient after learning what it's about last winter," Coleman said.
"People just think tow trucks are magicians and they're really impatient," said John Bassford of Charley's Crane Service.
But all agreed on one thing: "This has already been one of the worst winters in recent memory. "I've been in business here for 20 years," said Brian Fletcher of Tysons Transmission Center, "and except for one year in the mid 60s this is as bad a winter as I've seen. I only tow for my regular customers but I've beein going nonstop the last week." Fletcher said he charges his customers $12.50 to respond to a call.
"The calls have been unbelievable, all around the clock," said Bassford. "Sometimes it's frustrating. You get out there and it isn't fast enough. Then they expect a $5 tow. Things aren't like that in this business anymore."