The Washington Post

Stay off D.C. area roads as winter storm intensifies

This Silver Spring street scene was typical of conditions at dawn: Snow covered grass and cars, but sidewalks and streets were just wet. (Robert Thomson – The Washington Post)

It looks so nice out, with early morning snow coating the grass but still leaving many sidewalks and streets clear. The newspaper arrived. The light coating on cars is easy to brush away. What could possibly go wrong?

If you are planning to do your regular commute, the conditions you start out in won’t match the conditions when you try to return home. The Capital Weather Gang reports that a low pressure area south of the D.C. region is intensifying. The next several hours will be a transition time to much heavier snow.

The list of Metrobus service suspensions is growing. MARC suspended service on the Brunswick Line. Highways are mostly clear, but the spray from the snow and rain is limiting drivers’ visibility. Keep those lights on even as dawn arrives. The gray light of early morning isn’t particularly helpful to drivers in these conditions. And watch out for the plows. Don’t get impatient waiting behind the plow trains on the highways.

The arrival time of a winter storm has a lot to do with its impact on the D.C. region. This one arrived overnight, giving many  governments and schools a chance to make their closing decisions early. See a list of closings on The Post’s live blog.

They made the right call, even though there’s no great difficulty getting around right now. The Jan. 26, 2011, storm showed how the region can be brought to a standstill when the weather deteriorates after everyone has arrived at work.

If many people look out the windows this morning and say, “That’s it?” and drive to work, we could be in for another experience with a traffic standstill as those folks leave this afternoon — though we’re already a step ahead of that thanks to the early closing decisions.

Safety tips

This will be a heavy, wet snow. Road problems are likely to be intensified by downed tree limbs and power outages that knock out traffic signals. Treat a dark intersection as an all-way stop. Doesn’t matter if your roadway is wider than the intersecting street. Doesn’t matter if you can’t see anyone coming. Also:

● When the District declares a snow emergency, don’t park along the streets with signs that designate them as snow emergency routes. That disrupts the snow-clearing operations and subjects drivers to towing and heavy fines.

● Think through your route before starting. If you’ve lived in a neighborhood for a while, you know the traditional trouble spots.

● Don’t bring trouble with you. Clear snow from the headlights and from the roof.

● 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.

● By all means, shovel your walkways, but don’t heave the snow into the street. When shoveling a driveway, leave the last five feet of snow at the curb till after the plow has made a pass. That will assist the plow truck and save you the annoyance of having to clear the area twice. Plow trucks almost always push snow to the right.

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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