How the East Coast’s busiest highway unraveled: 36 hours of confusion and misery on I-95

Miscommunications and holes in Virginia’s response added to the confusion as motorists were stranded overnight

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Drivers wait for traffic to clear on Interstate 95 in Carmel Church, halfway between Fredericksburg and Richmond, on Jan. 4.
Drivers wait for traffic to clear on Interstate 95 in Carmel Church, halfway between Fredericksburg and Richmond, on Jan. 4. (Steve Helber/AP)

The 911 calls from distraught drivers were already pouring in: Small cars and large trucks were sliding in heavy snow, ramps and lanes were impassable, parents worried for the safety of young children. Then a tractor-trailer jackknifed on a hilly stretch of the East Coast’s busiest highway, halting travel toward the nation’s capital.

By 8:30 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 3, an emergency was cascading out of control. It wasn’t until more than 20 hours later — after a patchwork of responses failed to keep the lanes open — that the top echelon of Virginia government understood the depth of the crisis.

That long delay added to widespread misery for travelers, truckers and a U.S. senator, leaving hundreds of drivers and passengers stranded overnight in freezing vehicles. The state’s fuzzy grasp of the situation lengthened the suffering, triggering an investigation spanning two gubernatorial administrations.

Three weeks after a foot of snow crippled the backbone of the Eastern Seaboard, a private company has been hired to review how the Virginia Department of Transportation, State Police and Department of Emergency Management responded, examining what went wrong along a 48-mile stretch of Interstate 95 south of Washington. The review, which the state requested, will contain an “unsparing” account, Virginia officials said.

The Washington Post — through state records and in interviews with state and local officials, highway and emergency management experts, and stranded motorists — found that internal miscommunications, botched public messaging and holes in the state’s emergency response added to the confusion, raising questions about Virginia’s preparedness for this and future disasters.

Calls grow for examinations of Virginia’s response to hours-long I-95 backup

VDOT struggled to keep pace with the storm and didn’t sound the alarm early or clearly enough when it was becoming overwhelmed, The Post found. Food, water, medical aid and gasoline that experts say should have been provided after eight hours, at most, were never widely distributed to motorists because state emergency officials say they weren’t told help was needed.

The snow’s intensity was greater than state officials could manage with the plows and law enforcement available. Branches fell, knocking out power and traffic cameras that state officials say were critical to understanding the scope of the meltdown. As motorists were settling in for a long, frigid night in their vehicles, at least three key state officials who could have mobilized and coordinated relief efforts were unaware the situation was so dire, they say.

Shannon Valentine, Virginia’s transportation secretary under then-Gov. Ralph Northam (D), said she received a call from the state’s commissioner of highways at 4:52 a.m. Tuesday indicating I-95 was impassable. She then got word to Northam through his chief of staff.

“There was a breakdown on 95,” Valentine said in an interview. “From the moment that I learned about this, I just immediately went into action.”

As the lumbering response kicked into gear, state and local officials coordinated to formally close the interstate, which occurred about 5:15 a.m. Tuesday, nearly a full day after a barrage of 911 calls had hinted at what was to come.

Monday morning: ‘We’re stuck. Nobody can move.’

Fred Presley joined a call at 4:20 a.m. with his agency heads in Stafford County, which is about an hour south of Washington when I-95 traffic cooperates. Crews reported that secondary roads were becoming messy as the storm rolled in — first as rain before transitioning to sleet and snow. The highway was left untreated because rain would have washed away the brine solution meant to prevent icing.

Officials also set up an emergency operations center at the county government complex less than a mile from I-95. VDOT often sends a representative during such events for a direct connection between state and local officials, Presley said, but the liaison didn’t stay because the severity of the storm meant work was needed elsewhere.

It wasn’t long before the deluge of 911 calls began.

6 reasons why conditions on I-95 deteriorated during the Jan. 3 snowstorm

At 7:27 a.m., a 911 operator fielded a call about a stuck tractor-trailer at the top of the I-95 off-ramp at Courthouse Road. A caller farther down the ramp said drivers around him on the slippery pavement were “getting out of their vehicles and telling people to turn around and go back onto 95 the wrong way.”

It was the first of more than a half-dozen calls over the next 1½ hours describing growing problems in both directions on a five-mile stretch of interstate in Stafford.


911 calls from stranded motorists







Another caller was a worried father appealing for help.

“I have my child in the car and I was trying to get off and get some gas. And we can’t move,” he told a 911 dispatcher just after 8 a.m. “We’re stuck. Nobody can move.”

The dispatcher responded: “They’re working as quickly as they can to get to you guys.”

Twenty minutes later, State Police learned of a jackknifed tractor-trailer blocking the highway’s northbound lanes. Col. Gary T. Settle, the State Police superintendent, would later point to that skidded-out truck as “kind of the impetus, or the beginning,” of the problems that would plague I-95.

Average speed on Monday, Jan. 3, between 8:30 and 9 a.m.

A handful of crashes on I-95 around the Stafford area already have been reported.

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Average speed on Monday, Jan. 3,

between 8:30 and 9 a.m.

A handful of crashes on I-95 around the Stafford area already have been reported.

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The pattern repeated itself for hours: Disabled vehicles would block lanes, then heavy-duty tow trucks would be summoned. The road conditions and numerous calls overwhelmed State Police and VDOT crews, who struggled through the same treacherous obstacles as the motorists they tried to help.

State incident reports obtained by The Post through a public records request show how one incident unfolded.

About 9:30 a.m., State Police reported “4 disabled tractor trailers. Signs are not activating,” according to the first of 19 internal updates on a partial blockage of the interstate near Courthouse Road in Stafford. The message references overhead signs that are essential for warning motorists of problems ahead.

Weather Service warned VDOT of heavy snow threat ahead of I-95 disaster

“All CCTV’s are down including signs due to the weather,” read a 10:39 a.m. update.

One minute later, first responders communicated about reports of four tractor-trailers stuck near Courthouse Road. A dispatcher said she had contacted a towing service.

“They are also stuck on 95. The plows are stuck, as well. I guess the responders are stuck,” the dispatcher said, according to an archive maintained by the audio service Broadcastify.

Northam’s office emailed the state Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) around 11 a.m. “asking them to let us know if/when a [state of emergency] was needed so we could get it done as early in the day as possible,” according to a former Northam administration official.

The state’s coordinator for emergency management at the time, Curtis Brown, responded that he would.

“My understanding is that there wasn’t further discussion of 95 at the governor’s office level” until Tuesday morning, according to the former Northam official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal communications.

No request for an emergency declaration came Monday. Brown later said there weren’t enough local appeals for assistance to warrant one. A declaration would have committed state funding and waived certain regulations for emergency work, he said, but a declaration wasn’t necessary for agencies to seek additional support from emergency management officials.

No state agencies requested assistance in a 3:30 p.m. Monday conference call or through the evening, he said.

Brown said VDEM staff remained in continuous contact with state and local officials, even though the state did not formally activate its Emergency Operations Center in Richmond to coordinate resources among various levels of government.

Back in Stafford, officials were increasingly worried.

About 11 a.m., Donna S. Krauss, the deputy county administrator, and her staff were planning to open an emergency shelter at Stafford High School. Downed lines cut power to much of Stafford and beyond, while parts of Route 1, which runs parallel to I-95, were shuttered.

The Fredericksburg District of VDOT, which oversees the bulk of the area where the worst backups were occurring, issued a news release at 11:30 a.m. telling motorists that I-95 was partly closed and that they should avoid all travel because of “hazardous” conditions.

Monday afternoon: Poor messaging and miscommunication

Trucker Chuck Todd was trying to haul his load of foam from New Jersey to Georgia.

Storms “don’t bother me too much,” Todd said. “I can get around.”

But that spirit ran into the mess that had been building since 7 a.m. About noon, the creeping traffic around him on I-95 came to a stop. State officials said traffic volumes were particularly high Monday, despite prestorm warnings to stay off the road.

Timeline: How a winter storm brought I-95 to a standstill

“There was no more movement,” Todd said. He didn’t get going again for 22 hours. He had plenty of food and water in the cab but ran out of Marlboro Lights. “That was probably good for me,” he said.

At noon, according to tweets from VDOT’s Fredericksburg District, southbound I-95 was closed in Stafford County because of a crash that involved six tractor-trailers. Northbound I-95 was down to one lane because of multiple disabled trucks a few miles away.

Responding to a motorist who had been stuck for three hours, the VDOT district office tweeted at 1:09 p.m. that intense snow and stranded vehicles were hampering the progress of plows and tow trucks. “We won’t stop until I-95 is back open and we’ve reached everyone, but we don’t have an estimate for reopening,” it said.

Twenty minutes later, VDOT reported snowfall rates were slowing.

Average speed on Monday, Jan. 3, between noon and 12:30 p.m.

Slow movement comes to a standstill in some of the worst areas, including near Stafford.

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Average speed on Monday, Jan. 3,

between noon and 12:30 p.m.

Slow movement comes to a standstill in some of the worst areas, including near Stafford.

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“We had sunlight, beautiful skies, so we were really hoping that the sun was going to work with us, as it usually does, and we would be able to get some of these vehicles moving,” VDOT Fredericksburg District engineer Marcie Parker told reporters the next day. “Unfortunately, we were unable to do that.”

Agency officials didn’t convey the dire reality with the clarity and broad reach that transportation and emergency experts say was needed. VDOT, responsible for maintaining nearly 58,000 miles of road, divides the responsibility among nine districts. VDOT’s Fredericksburg District tweeted that motorists were stuck, and offered grim updates throughout the day. The agency’s main account also tweeted information about closures, but drivers said in later interviews they didn’t see them.

Toni Deroche of York, Pa., and her husband left their Myrtle Beach, S.C., vacation home Monday instead of Sunday to avoid highways they expected would be jammed with post-New Year’s Day travelers. Their Hummer arrived in the Fredericksburg area, then traffic stopped. They were able to exit, but their Waze app guided them to smaller roads obstructed by downed pine trees.

They resorted to getting back on the interstate, where traffic creeped awhile longer before another standstill. “You’d think, ‘Maybe it’s only going to be another hour,’ but then two hours go by and then three hours,” Deroche said. They stayed warm with a blanket their daughter gave them for Christmas while eating broccoli, dip and other leftover provisions from their beach house.

Other motorists described acts of quiet kindness and discretion amid the misery, sharing bread and fruit, and shutting off car headlights when others needed to relieve themselves.

Meanwhile, a key source of traffic information for motorists — the state’s 511 system — remained relatively quiet. A 511 incident list for Monday included a half-dozen entries for planned disruptions, like bridge work, but no real-time accounting of traffic issues.

A 511 Twitter feed designed to communicate travel conditions on I-95 did not include reports of hours-long backups in the 48-mile section Monday. It noted two single-lane closures, a shut exit and information about a handful of disabled trucks, including some that had been cleared.

Motorists complained about the void, and VDOT cited “technical difficulties” affecting the 511virginia.org website and smartphone app. VDOT declined to detail the system’s problems.

Power outages also shut down traffic cameras that would usually help pinpoint the length and location of backups, which the agency said hampered its understanding of, and communications about, the disaster.

Kelly Hannon, communications manager for VDOT’s Fredericksburg District, said the lack of cameras contributed to the frustration.

“It was difficult for me to communicate as I normally would the exact mile markers and locations and the degree of the backups,” Hannon said. “I just did not have specific information to share.”

Rick Nelson, a snow and ice consultant for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said he couldn’t comment on VDOT’s actions. However, he noted that without cameras, highway officials would have to rely on people on the ground to report what they’re seeing.

“It’s like a blind man touching an elephant,” Nelson said. “They only know what’s right in front of them.”

Those problems fed into what emergency response experts said was one of Virginia’s biggest stumbles: failing to get clear warnings out widely enough on overhead signs to prevent more motorists from heading into the abyss.

Throughout the morning, and despite major incidents, VDOT signs reminded motorists that bridges freeze before roadways and warned that the ongoing and severe storm required caution. Others containing more detailed warnings also were displayed, a review of an agency message database shows.

At 1:22 p.m., three message signs along northbound I-95 read: “INCIDENT MM 139 ALL LANES BLOCKED,” using shorthand for “mile marker,” according to the documents.

After I-95 fiasco, a ‘road weather’ expert digs into snow, ice and jackknifed trucks

VDOT officials and state incident reports indicate that the weather and power outages left some signs not functional. “Staff input the messages into our sign system and made those available to the public,” VDOT said in a statement. “However, power outages may have disrupted some of the signage.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who left Richmond at 1 p.m., said the signs he encountered read “Snow. Proceed with caution” and “Left lane blocked” during his nearly 27-hour journey to Washington.

Valentine, the former transportation secretary, said the signs should have been clearer. Instead of telling drivers to proceed with caution, she said, messages should have discouraged all travel. VDOT also did not ask other East Coast states to post their own I-95 alerts until the next day, after the roadway had been closed.

Citing communication problems, VDOT Commissioner Stephen C. Brich said in an interview, “We did not do everything correctly in that area.”

Brich did not explain what went wrong, but he said changes already are in place to be more direct with travelers. Those changes were noticeable during three subsequent snowstorms this month, he said, when signs told drivers “Stay off the road” and “Do not drive.”

Brich told The Post that the agency considered traffic to be moving throughout the day Monday, albeit slowly, and as long as it was moving, the decision was to keep the highway open. Major stoppages on other highways during the storm, such as I-64 and I-81, had resolved within hours, he said. Parts of the problem segment of I-95 remained “open, free of traffic or at highway speed, and not necessarily all 48 miles were impacted,” which he expects will be confirmed by the review the state requested, he said.

State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller also described activity on I-95 that she said fell short of a standstill. Traffic was “still moving as vehicles were towed/pushed/dug out and were back on their way again,” Geller said.

Some motorists described pockets of movement. Others recalled motionless periods trapped in their cars for many hours. A 93-year-old Albany, N.Y., man heading to Florida said he didn’t budge for 17 hours.

In a Jan. 11 briefing with a state transportation oversight board, Kevin Gregg, VDOT’s chief of maintenance and operations, pushed back against the notion the interstate should have been closed.

“The commercial vehicles had trouble climbing the hills up on 95,” he said. “So you may ask yourself, ‘Well, why don’t you just move traffic someplace else?’” Other major and secondary routes also were blocked, he said.

“We just didn’t want to move it from one parking lot to another parking lot,” Gregg said of stalled traffic. “That wouldn’t be the right thing to do.”

Lacking a big-picture view, transportation officials requested a State Police helicopter at 3:45 p.m. Monday.

“That’s one of those things where somebody says, ‘Hey, we got to get a helicopter up so we can get eyes on it.’ And you sit there and think, ‘I wish I’d thought of that,’” Gregg said.

But the only helicopter available at the State Police aviation base — at Chesterfield County Airport, south of Richmond — was an air ambulance for medical emergencies. That meant they had to wait until a helicopter stationed in Lynchburg arrived the next morning, State Police said.

While the state’s choppers were unavailable, NBC4 Washington’s lifted off. Onboard reporter Brad Freitas tweeted video at 5:46 p.m. showing I-95 traffic in Stafford was stopped in both directions.

One minute earlier, VDOT’s Fredericksburg District had issued a news release titled “EARLIER I-95 CRASHES CLEAR IN STAFFORD, BUT CONGESTION PERSISTS.” The picture kept shifting as officials tried to keep up, with the release pointing both to reopened and recently closed lanes, while urging motorists to stay away.

Incident reports help to explain the mixed messages. Over a seven-hour stretch, internal reports on the tractor-trailer crash at Courthouse Road kept repeating: “The situation remains unchanged.” Then, finally, the trucks were moved.

“Scene clear,” read an internal message at 4:35 p.m.

Within about an hour, lanes were blocked again.

Monday evening: Falling temperatures, rising frustrations

At 7 p.m., downed trees and power lines blocked Keith Wann’s drive from Harrisburg, Pa., down Route 1 toward Quantico Marine Corps Base. Law enforcement in Woodbridge directed him to southbound I-95.

Traffic at the closest interstate ramp wasn’t moving, he said, leaving him stuck overnight — sustained by leftover banana bread his daughter made for his birthday. He said it seemed state officials had left motorists to fend for themselves.

“The scariest part was the unknown,” Wann said. “You felt abandoned. You felt forgotten. And you’re wondering, ‘Are they at home in front of their heaters and they’ll just deal with us in the morning?’”

Moments before Wann became stranded, Parker, the VDOT district engineer, was hopeful the situation would improve. That evening, Parker later recounted, state transportation officials finally were able to get more heavy-duty wreckers and personnel to the worst backups.

Workers “physically started towing vehicles out with our own state trucks, and moving the equipment around using State Police to stop the traffic,” she said. It allowed VDOT plows to spread anti-icing agents, work that continued through the night, Parker said.

She acknowledged the fast-falling snow ultimately proved more than VDOT could handle, but top state officials say the agency was not sounding the alarm Monday evening.

Valentine said she was in regular contact with Brich, the highway commissioner, all day Monday, getting briefings on conditions across the state. During the last report she received, I-95 was still passable, she said.

Brown, Virginia’s then-emergency management coordinator, said he provided an update to the governor’s office Monday evening based on the latest reports from VDOT and other agencies. He said he related that some regions had received significant snow, utility companies were responding to widespread power outages, and VDOT “was working to clear roads and highways, but had made no significant request for support.”

That evening, stranded drivers began straggling into Stafford Hospital in search of shelter. Some had flagged down county sheriff’s deputies. Others trudged through the snow. One woman’s car was in a nearby ditch.

Over several hours, dozens more made it to government buildings or were picked up by authorities and taken to the shelter at the high school.

“Most of them were out-of-towners,” said Presley, the county administrator. One came inside wearing flip-flops, part of a family that had flown in from somewhere warmer.

For some, it was a blur. A young couple headed to New Jersey tried to route around the blockages, only to become stuck themselves. A deputy got them to the shelter, where they were given blankets, food, water and masks.

“They were like, ‘Where are we again?’” said Krauss, the county’s deputy administrator.

On the interstate, temperatures sank into the teens as frustrations rose, including among officials tasked with keeping people safe. Radio traffic between State Police and local sheriff’s and emergency officials hinted at the exasperation.

“Can you call either an area supervisor or VDOT and see if we just can’t shut this whole damn interstate down so VDOT can clean it out and we get the cars off of it?” came one appeal.

Average speed on Monday, Jan. 3, between 8:30 and 9 p.m.

Standstills persist. Meanwhile, Todd Gursslin’s family sets out from Rochester, N.Y., toward I-95 in Virginia.

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Average speed on Monday, Jan. 3,

between 8:30 and 9 p.m.

Standstills persist. Meanwhile, Todd Gursslin’s family sets out from Rochester, N.Y., toward I-95 in Virginia.

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Around 9 p.m., Todd Gursslin set out from Rochester, N.Y., for a family vacation to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Their flight was canceled, so the family — including four children ages 7 to 23 — stepped into a rented SUV and headed south.

As the family drove through Pennsylvania, Virginia transportation officials and State Police were trying to clear a path to freedom for motorists who were frozen in place.

Between 10 p.m. and midnight, traffic was still moving northbound and southbound, according to “the intelligence that was provided to me,” Brich said. Valentine said she was last briefed by him during that time.

Tuesday: ‘It is unclear as to what happened’

State Police and some VDOT officials said they concluded I-95 had become completely blocked around midnight, though Brich said there was uncertainty over the precise time, pegging it at “sometime between midnight and 3 a.m.” He added: “Something happened, and it is unclear as to what happened.”

Average speed on Tuesday,

Jan. 4, between midnight and 12:30 a.m.

State officials say that around this period, I-95 becomes impassible.

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Average speed on Tuesday, Jan. 4,

between midnight and 12:30 a.m.

State officials say that around this period, I-95 becomes impassible.

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Dispatchers kept fielding emergency calls from people on the interstate and transferring them to State Police, as is protocol. VDOT’s workers struggled to make progress on the blocked highway. “It was not going as quickly as we had hoped,” Parker said.

Meanwhile, local authorities were assisting an increasing number of motorists mired just off I-95.

Presley, the Stafford County administrator, said he called a local VDOT engineer and manager after midnight, then again a couple of hours later.

“What’s going on? What are you doing?” he asked. “They said, ‘It’s a mess. We’re doing everything we can and it’s going to be a while.’”

The journey was still smooth for the Outer Banks-bound Gursslin family. They stopped about 2 a.m. just before Fredericksburg for Fiddle Faddle popcorn and water. But 30 minutes later they were back on I-95, stuck in traffic that rolled a bit at first but quickly turned to gridlock.

“I thought it would be a normal traffic jam,” said Gursslin, a part-time comedian and podcaster with a penchant for lewdness.

While the family sat motionless, Brich was getting a call at 3 a.m. from VDOT’s communications chief, saying what the Gursslins already knew: Traffic was stopped. About 30 minutes later, Brich reached Brown, the emergency coordinator, advising that “we had a situation and we needed assistance.”

At that hour, Kaine’s latest standstill — this one six hours — relented. He maneuvered around jackknifed trucks and traffic was suddenly moving well, he said. He needed gas and exited in Fredericksburg. His navigation system pointed him back onto the interstate, where northbound traffic was smooth for another five or 10 miles. But as he neared Stafford Regional Airport, there was another “dead stop” that lasted at least four hours.

Brich said that on a 4 a.m. conference call with VDOT leaders, they discussed closing the road, and the safety implications of doing so, because of poor conditions on nearby roads.

“Are the alternative routes safe and passable?” Brich said he asked. “I understand the extreme hardship that the travelers really experienced during this winter storm, and I don’t want to downplay that whatsoever. But the safety of the overall traveling public is paramount.”

Parker said VDOT needed to get vehicles off the interstate so they could “cut open the pavement, because the ice was approximately four inches deep in many locations.”

Brich made his call to Valentine at 4:52 a.m.

In a call among state officials minutes later, VDOT and State Police were moving to close the highway and discussing which entrances to block. The plan was shared with local officials, since county deputies would help with shutting ramps. States from New York to North Carolina were starting to receive notifications.

At 5:15 a.m., VDOT tweeted: “Interstate 95 is CLOSED.”

Northam weighed in later in the morning, 11 days before leaving office. “My team has been working throughout the night alongside” state police, VDOT and emergency officials “to respond to the situation on I-95,” he tweeted at 8:17 a.m.

Within 10 minutes, Kaine’s commuter horror began grabbing headlines and rocketing through social media.

Two hours later, officials were peering down from a state helicopter at a line of 50,000-pound trucks and trapped and abandoned cars, separated by long stretches of iced-over pavement.

After listening to a Jerry Seinfeld audio book, fidgeting with their phones to stave off boredom and taking turns napping through the night, the older members of the Gursslin family were offering the final chocolate chip cookie to their 7-year-old fellow traveler.

“It seemed like it was never-ending,” said Evan Arena, 23, the son of Gursslin’s partner. He said they were “all losing it” and taking turns walking outside to break up the monotony. “It would be one thing if state troopers were explaining what was going on or bringing water. But we saw no one.”

Geller, the State Police spokeswoman, said the limited snacks and water troopers keep for emergencies were “rationed for those greatest in need.” She said the 20 to 30 troopers working along more than 40 miles at any particular time checked on as many people as they could.

The Gursslin family finally drove off about 5 p.m. — 15 hours after getting stuck — as one of the last cars out. They inched around other closed roads, had a rental car nightmare in Norfolk and took a $300 Uber ride to the beach, arriving 30 hours after leaving Rochester.

“It just felt like we were disregarded and they thought, ‘Oh, it will be over soon,’” Gursslin said. “It was dangerous and people were scared.”

Highway crews spent the afternoon towing dozens of vehicles that were abandoned or ran out of gas. Thirty-six hours after trouble began, southbound lanes reopened about 7 p.m. Northbound lanes quickly followed.

Meagan Flynn, Elyse Samuels, Andrew Ba Tran, Shawn Boburg, Sarah Cahlan and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

About this story

Average speed was calculated by measuring the time and difference in location of mobile device pings along segments of Interstate 95. Data was provided by Whitespace. Editing by Tim Richardson. Audio production by Bishop Sand. Graphics by Atthar Mirza and Laris Karklis. Graphics editing by Danielle Rindler. Copy editing by Kimberly Chapman. Photo editing by Mark Gail. Design and development by Tara McCarty.

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