Winter Wonderland or Worry-Land? How Bad Weather Impacts Transportation

The Postal Service has no official motto, but there’s a phrase that has become a tribute to the job that works through all conditions. It states “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”  This can also be said of those in the trucking industry, since a severe weather day doesn’t necessarily mean a day off from work. While it’s not exactly an episode of “Ice Road Truckers” every time bad weather strikes; fog, rain, wind, snow, and ice can still have major impacts on the way you get the job done.

This Winter’s Outlook


Whether you go by the Farmer’s Almanac, or you look to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s outlook, parts of the United States are expected to experience colder and wetter temperatures for the 2016-17 winter season.

NOAA’s outlook says La Niña is likely to impact winter conditions, meaning certain patterns of temperature and precipitation would be favored across the country. Overall, a La Niña winter would mean drier and warmer conditions in the southern part of the United States, and colder and wetter conditions in the northern parts of the nation. The Farmer’s Almanac shows an exceptionally cold winter season in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, and New England, as well as some cold fronts potentially reaching as far south as Florida. The western states are forecasted to see milder-than-normal temperatures this winter, while it seems the Rockies will experience wetter than normal conditions. The northwest may have a wet winter, which could mean heavy precipitation in higher elevations.

Drivers: Check Before you Leave


Before we dive into ways that extreme weather can impact transportation, we just want to remind you of the importance of being prepared before you hit the road. Take time to check the weather forecasts along your route, plan for extra transit time if you believe there could be some hazardous conditions, and make sure you have any emergency equipment that you could possibly need.

Always complete your pre-trip inspection before hitting the road, even if you don’t expect any extreme weather.

Severe Weather Impacts


Whether it’s dense fog, rain, thunderstorms, wind, snow, or ice, severe weather can have significant impacts on commercial motor vehicles and the infrastructure they travel on. From the first few drops of rain, to when the mercury dips below 32 degrees, weather can cause decreased visibility, make it harder to handle your truck, or cause a travel time delay.  We’ll go over some of the most common severe weather instances and how they can impact transportation.

Even if you feel that you are skilled in driving in bad weather situations, you could be indirectly affected by passenger cars stopping in breakdown lanes, or driving hazardously around your vehicle.

Some of the weather events we will go over include fog, strong winds, snow, and ice.

Fog


There’s a reason many schools decide to delay opening on a foggy morning. Even the slightest bit of fog can reduce visibility distance. With that, you can expect traffic speed to be affected and a higher accident risk.  Expect prolonged travel time when dealing with a foggy day.

Rain


Rain is the most common type of “bad” weather. Just a few rain drops on the road can cause issues with pavement friction, as water mixes with oils already on the roadways. As with fog, heavier rain can impact visibility distance, in turn slowing traffic speeds, and can increase travel time.

Water on the roadway could require increased braking distance. With water under your tires, there’s also an increased likelihood of wheel spinning and hydroplaning. According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), wet roads can double stopping distances.

As heavy rains continue, roadways could flood, posing more dangerous driving conditions and detours due to road closures.

Wind


While hurricane-force winds can be a nightmare for big rigs, even the slightest gusts of wind could make it harder to control your truck. After 50 mph winds, maintaining control of your truck is a significant challenge, at 60 mph, it’s nearly impossible. Bridges and overpasses can become especially dangerous, and may even be closed, so take caution.

Mix any of the other weather conditions with wind and you could potentially have a recipe for disaster. Research forecasted wind speeds before you hit the road, or you may find yourself facing wind restrictions, or even waiting for conditions to improve.

Snow


When the temperatures start to drop, that’s when travel concerns begin about freezing rain, snow, and ice. The main impacts of freezing rain and snow are decreased visibility and traction. Further impacts can include delays, road closures, and other driver control problems as bridges and ramps freeze.

When driving in snow, make sure that you have working wipers and a windshield defroster. Use your low beams to help with visibility, and increase your driving distance to allow for safe braking.

Ice


With snow, freezing rain, and dropping temperatures, ice becomes a major travel concern. Significant risks associated with ice on the roads include difficult traction and control. You could also run into potential obstructions along your route due to fallen trees, electrical wires, utility poles, or other vehicles. On the weekend of Dec.17 to 18, 2016, icy conditions in Baltimore and Washington D.C. caused huge pile-ups of vehicles, including tractor-trailers. Listen to reports and watch your speed when icy conditions are possible.

Bridges and overpasses tend to freeze before main roadways, so expect significant travel delays due to decreased speed in those areas.

If you must continue your trip in icy conditions, the Federal Highway Administration recommends dropping to a lower gear to improve traction, or slow to 10 or 15 miles per hour. Keep your eyes on the vehicles ahead of you for any potential black ice situations, where you can’t necessarily see the layer of ice on the road.

Recap


While many of you reading this are professional drivers, it’s always important to remember that most of the other drivers on the road along with you don’t have the same training under their belt.
Here are the most important things to remember about weather events and their impacts on transportation:

1. Check the forecast for your route before you leave and make a contingency plan for bad weather.
2. Be prepared to wait out severe storms or high winds.
3.Expect travel delays.
4. Be alert for the actions of other drivers on the road.

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