Getting around the D.C. area – the 3rd most congested in the U.S. – can be a challenging task in itself.  But hazardous weather can further aggravate the situation and create dangerous conditions.

Visibility impairments

When precipitation is falling, visibility can be significantly impaired and motorists should take necessary precautions to adjust to the changing road conditions.  Driving slower than usual and maintaining a safe following distances will reduce the risk of being in a weather-related accident.

Also, be sure you’ve got windshield wiper fluid and your windshield wipers are in good working order, or replace them.

Headlights should be used during inclement weather conditions, but motorists should avoid using their high-beams near other drivers, which can be distracting.  This same advice holds true for dense fog, considered as the most dangerous weather hazard on the road!

If it’s raining or snowing so hard you can’t see the road, pull to the side and wait for precipitation intensity to diminish.

Winter weather hazards

Winter weather hazards can frequently catch drivers by surprise.

Black ice on asphalt is almost invisible to the naked eye and can easily cause drivers to lose control of their vehicles. Take note when freezing rain/drizzle is in the forecast and be especially cautious on bridges, ramps and overpasses, which freeze most readily.

When it’s snowing, clear all snow off your car (don’t forget the roof), and drive slowly while avoiding big changes in speed.  Geico has good tips on how to dislodge a car stuck in snow and how to take a skid.

As a general rule, when air temperatures are forecast to be at or below freezing, drivers should have scrapers on hand to clean ice off the windshield.  They should also be aware of solid snow and ice left on other vehicles that can fly off roofs like a missile.

Life-threatening situations: aborting your journey

Turn Around, Don't Drown sign 1

The weather conditions listed above can usually be safely maneuverable on the road with caution, but some hazards should be completely avoided.

  • Never cross a flooded roadway. The power of water may sweep your vehicle away.  ‘Turn Around, Don’t Drown’
  • Strong winds can cause vehicles to sway and occasionally overturn on busy highways. Operators of high profile vehicles such as large trucks, RVs, mobile homes, and trailers are especially at risk due to their high center of gravity.
  • Tornado encounters should cause motorists to immediately get off the road and seek shelter nearby.  Don’t attempt to outrun the storm and don’t stay inside your vehicle.

The video below shows a local tornado that crossed interstate 95 near Fredericksburg, VA on October 13, 2011.  Multiple vehicles are seen on the interstate with dangerous flying debris just over a minute into the video.

Be aware of any threats of potential severe weather before getting behind the wheel.


Hail encounters may not be completely avoidable, but insurer Progressive provides safety tips to minimize risks in hailstorms.  If possible, pull off to the side of the road to wait out the storm.  If the hail is large, find a covered parking spot, as hail can damage your car. It is especially important for motorcyclists and bicyclists seek shelter.

Motorcyclists and cyclists require special care in the elements

Directly exposed to the sky, motorcycle and bike riders must especially understand the weather risks on the road.  Riders should be dressed appropriately for the expected weather conditions and have rain gear readily available.

Considerations have to be made before riding for what to wear to maintain body comfort.  Exposure to hypothermia, frost bite, dehydration, and sunburns are risks for riders that other motorists don’t typically have to think about.  Riders may have to adapt to changing weather conditions between their initial location and ultimate destination.  Inexperienced riders may have some difficulties in handling abrupt weather changes.

Road weather research

An ongoing project at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is investigating new ways to give drivers increased awareness of weather hazards by adding weather sensors to vehicles.

Link: Nope, not tornadoes: Most weather deaths from car wrecks (USA Today)

“Vehicle Data Translator” is being developed under NCAR’s Scientific Program Manager, Sheldon Drobot, that would enable the sharing of wireless weather data between nearby drivers, ultimately providing increased risk awareness of real-time road and weather conditions.  This NCAR research will potentially improve weather safety for drivers across the country in identifying dangerous weather hazards on the road.


* AAA provides a list of items to consider including in a vehicle as a winter weather survival kit.

* The website provides useful safety tips for driving during various inclement weather conditions.

* For motorcyclists, frequent riding practices can overcome inexperience. Local companies such as APEX Cycle Education in Northern Virginia offer rider courses to train beginners or give experienced riders additional practice.  The website provides useful weather tips for motorcyclists and the Motorcycle Safety Foundation Basic Rider Course handbook provides riders with additional essential safety tips.

The author, Brendan Richardson, is a Capital Weather Gang fall intern.