With estimates of more than 100 million people swarming U.S. roads and airports during the holiday season, the last thing transportation agencies need is winter weather adding to their laundry list of road maintenance problems. But from mid-November to the beginning of January – historically the most traveled time of the year – winter precipitation is a consistently reliable challenge to surmount.
By mid-December, travelers are truly rolling the dice, with areas north of the Texas panhandle, Missouri and northern Virginia most susceptible to winter storms. And even if the destination is warm enough for rain, chances are cars and public transit will still have to travel through snow-prone areas.
So, with record numbers of people hitting the roads, what proactive measures can travelers and transportation agencies alike take to improve the safety and mobility of roads during peak holiday season?
Whether you’re visiting loved ones in the family station wagon or carrying last-minute letters and packages in a tractor-trailer, snow plow drivers are under immense pressure to both clear the roads and also navigate traffic. But travelers can make their lives easier. Just as there are best practices for shoveling your driveway, there is common etiquette for driving with snow plows. As a general rule: do not pass a plow. And if you must pass a single plow, do so on the left-hand side because they dump the snow on the right. Remember, they are clearing the road for you, so do what you can to help keep the roads safer and easier to travel for you and the plow driver.
(Absolutely) no tailgating
Another important rule during peak holiday season, is (absolutely) no tailgating. Follow the plow driver (and indeed any vehicle) at a greater distance than you would normally – roughly three or four car lengths. Plows need space to drop their sand or chemicals to make roads less hazardous.
This might seem obvious, but during peak holiday season you should always do your due diligence and time any travel accordingly. Check the weather forecast, check your travel route provider of choice for any traffic updates, and if you have the ability, leave earlier or later to avoid peak-time congestion en route to your destination.
Preparing for the worst
Road maintenance crews must be prepared and forecasters must be on hand to provide them with hourly up-to-date storm information. All it takes is one slightly heavier band of snow to shift over a major interstate to cause unexpected problems. This can mean the difference between a few inches to a foot of snow in an area sometimes smaller than a county.
It isn’t just the big winter storms that can affect holiday travel, however. More under-the-radar events mean crews need to remain vigilant. For a large portion of the snow-prone areas, daytime temperatures are warm enough to melt the snow and ice. The problem arises again at night when temperatures drop below freezing and, if untreated, will form a layer of ice on the roads. Early-morning fog can cause similar issues. Ultimately, anything from a big storm to everyday changes in temperature can cause severe road maintenance challenges.
The Bottom Line
Road maintenance during the winter holiday season is always challenging. Weather will not always co-operate with your travel plans, so extra attention must be paid to both the large and small events, as even a small patch of ice left on the road can derail traffic. In that sense it isn’t that much different from the rest of the winter, but during peak holiday season, increased numbers of people on the roads means road maintenance crews need to treat the roads more efficiently than any other time of year. Travelers can help mitigate the stress on maintenance crews by giving plows a wide berth, planning ahead and having plenty of patience.