For the ancients, the winter solstice was an evil day -- short on light and long on the forces of darkness. For the Washington area, yesterday's official beginning of winter was also short on light and long on modern evils -- fender benders and the accompanying traffic jams and headaches.
Roads were jammed in Maryland, Virginia and the District, police said, from a combination of rain, fog, icy roads, holiday parties, last-minute holiday shoppers, students finishing their last day of school before the holidays and travelers heading home.
Even President and Mrs. Reagan got caught in the crunch as they headed north on I-270 to Camp David for the long holiday weekend. The usual half-hour helicopter jaunt to the Maryland mountain retreat turned into a two-hour trip by motorcade due to heavy fog.
On their way home from Silver Spring to Ijamsville in southern Frederick County, Jim and Tim Stueve were motioned over by U.S. Park Police north of the Beltway to make way for the president, protected by Park Police motorcycles as well as cruisers and two Secret Service vans.
"People are going all over 270 trying to get the hell out of the way, not knowing what's going on. It's raining, it's rush hour," Stueve said. Noting that he's a Republican, he added, "I felt highly indignant. I can appreciate bringing the old man -- I mean that in the military sense -- up to Camp David but it was obscene, is what it was."
Mark Weinberg, assistant White House press secretary, said the president directed motorcade officials to keep disruption of traffic to a minimum. A motorcade is necessary for security reasons, he said, not to speed the trip through traffic.
The American Automobile Association, which keeps a daily tally of calls for help of its 425,000 local members, reported that between midnight last night and the end of the evening rush hour at 6:30, it had received 1,200 calls, most for minor accidents, in contrast to an average of 800 to 900 during a normal 24-hour period.
"It looks like it's a bonanza night for body repair shops," said Tom Crosby, director of public affairs for AAA.
Although they do not compile official statistics, police in each jurisdiction said there were many more accidents than are normal, even in foul weather. In Fairfax County, police spokesman Warren Carmichael estimated there had been about 50 traffic-choking accidents yesterday by 5 p.m. -- more than double, he said, for a rainy day. The accidents and traffic tie-ups seemed to be heaviest "on roadways leading to shopping areas," according to Carmichael, especially on Rte. 644 leading to Springfield mall.
District police counted 43 traffic accidents, none serious. At one Northeast location, there were six accidents because of a large sheet of ice.
Police spokesmen in other jurisdictions agreed with their District and Fairfax counterparts that the area was a mess. "Any accident adds up to a headache for motorists and during this whole day that's the way its happened," Montgomery police spokesman Phillip Caswell said. "Anytme you've got even a fender bender it can add up to a half hour to an hour and a half or longer delay."