Monday, February 2, 2015

On January 9th snow squalls unleashed a huge, 187vehicle pile-up on I-94 in Michigan near Kalamazoo. Twenty three people were hospitalized and one died as a result. The crash involved both sides of the freeway, sparked a fire and explosions (a truck full of fireworks burned!) and closed the freeway for two days. There were two other chain collisions in Michigan the same day.

There have been several other such crashes across the country recently. Two people were killed on January 8th in a chain collision on I-80 in Pennsylvania; on January 18th, 26 vehicles piled up on I-84 in Oregon; and on January 14th nine vehicles crashed in a pileup on I-90 in Washington. Crashes like this occur all over the world. The main cause is reduced visibility due to fog, dust, smoke or snow. Snow (and ice) is the worst because it makes roads slippery, too.

The thing about it is, these crashes can be prevented. I don’t think they can be eliminated, but the frequency, size and cost of these events can be reduced. We know why these collisions occur. The National Weather Service successfully predicts the conditions that reduce driver’s ability to see or cause roads to ice day-in and day-out, year after year; and they make their predictions available for free in just about every medium known to humanity. I am not simply talking about weather forecasts, but specific warnings that include estimated timing and locations of hazards.

Here is an example of some pretty sophisticated technology being used in Georgia to slow traffic when it is foggy. California has similar technology in some places. But preventing these collisions doesn’t depend on technology. When the National Weather Service says fog or snow or whatever is likely in a specific location, we just need to send a few troopers or deputies to the freeways with their flashers going and the kind of flashing signs we already use to post temporarily lower speed limits.  Just slow ‘em down. 

I have talked to local law enforcement people about this in the past. The main barrier to implementing something like this seems to be leadership. It isn’t easy for law enforcement to introduce new practices without clear authority to do so. Who decides? Who has jurisdiction? And they worry about taking on additional work without a way to pay for it. This would be a great opportunity for some simple legislation sorting these issues out.