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As Winter Turns to Spring, A Better Forecast for Safe Driving

April 10, 2019
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Thumb winter to spring

Spring has sprung throughout most of Nevada, leaving behind the relative cold and heightened travel risks of the winter season. Technically spring begins on March 20, although for much of Northern Nevada the spring weather did not really arrive until the final days of the month. (If that date seems off, here is a quick aside. Many of us learned that spring begins on March 21, but the universe has little concern for our arbitrary calendars. The spring season begins on the spring equinox, the day following winter when the earth reaches the 90-degree point on its orbit around the sun. Scientists have run the numbers and concluded that, statistically, the first day of spring falls on March 20 rather than the 21st. Some years though, it falls on March 22nd. And because the United States is so large – including the outlying states of Alaska and Hawai’I – there is not just variation in the calendar but also within the country itself! [1])

In any case, the start of spring means a months-long period of warmer temperatures and relatively little snow. The Reno-Tahoe region is somewhat renowned for its zany weather, which has included a snow storm two years ago in June and recorded snow during every month of the year. [2] And the weather can vary with topography, too. The Washoe County School District (WCSD) stretches from the southern extremes of the South Meadows up to the Cold Springs area in the north and from Verdi in the west to Natchez Elementary school in the eastern hamlet of Wadsworth. After years of complaints about disparate impacts of school closure decisions – where the decision to close school district-wide might inconvenience parents whose children could safely arrive at school and the decision to keep school open could put other children in harm’s way – the WCSD has rolled out a system of sub-district regional zones. With this new approach, district administrators can better target their closure decisions to avoid these odd results. [3] (This approach also helps get the WCSD of a bind after its repeated attempts to address weather issues with “digital days” – in which students stay home and complete online enrichment activities instead and these days count as days of instruction – were given a seemingly final repudiation. [4])

While there is no accounting for the occasional May snowstorm, the large weather systems that blanket the roadways, and create enduring, dangerous road conditions are generally left behind from the start of spring until the late fall. Winter driving accidents cause some 800 deaths across the country per year, costing about 4,000 lives between the years 2011 and 2015. The northern states of the so-called Rust Belt – Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – are the hardest hit with more than 40 automobile fatalities each winter. Ohio averages nearly 90 deadly winter car crashes each year. Many of us drive year-round and do not think especially hard about getting behind the wheel when the snow is falling. While many of us would beat a hasty retreat if we anticipated a flood or hurricane, winter driving crashes in fact claim more lives annually than those kinds of natural disasters do. [5]

Although most of the devastation is regionalized, winter driving conditions can affect roadways from north to south. Georgia can experience significant winter weather, and even typically hot Texas occasionally gets snow and ice on its roadways. The same is even true in the desert-type climates of Southern California and the Las Vegas region, where the combination of precipitation (invariably rain!) and overnight temperatures that dip below freezing can coat the roadways with a thin layer of ice that is invisible to the naked eye and especially hazardous to drivers who are only accustomed to dry asphalt. [6]

Some 70 percent of weather-related crashes occur when pavement is wet; 46 percent occur during rainfall and 18 percent happen during snow or sleet. [7] The conditions truly are the hazard, and the most important thing drivers can do to keep themselves safe is to slow down. Many drivers indulge in going five or ten miles per hour over the posted speed limit during ideal conditions. This is not safe, since the speed limits are carefully calibrated to reflect a save driving speed for a typical driver under normal conditions. (Part of the problem is that we all over-estimate our own competence, especially when we are not good at something. Scientists have dubbed this the Dunning-Kuger effect. [8]) Since the posted speed limit reflects the top speed we should be driving during ideal conditions, it is obvious that we need to slow down when conditions are wet or icy. Wet pavement is harder to slow down on, so our vehicles need more space to brake before striking a vehicle or object ahead. Since stopping distance is proportional to speed, slowing down can compensate for this loss of stopping power and thereby preserve the amount of reaction time we are allowed to avoid a hazard.

Wet conditions also lower visibility, both due to the need to operate windshield wipers, the likelihood of dirty road slurry being sprayed into our field of vision, and other drivers’ use of headlights to improve their own vision. You cannot control what other drivers are doing, and it is highly inadvisable to attempt to force other drivers to driver responsibly by maneuvering your own vehicle. The best thing any of us can do to improve our chances of safely navigating the roadways is to slow down and remain alert.

If you or a loved one have been hurt in a car accident, contact an experienced personal injury lawyer for a consultation to learn about your legal rights and what possibilities you have for being made whole.

[1] https://www.space.com/881-date-changed-start-spring.html

[2] https://www.rgj.com/story/news/2017/06/12/reno-tahoe-region-hit-summer-snowstorm-over-weekend/390277...

[3] https://www.washoeschools.net/site/default.aspx?PageType=3&ModuleInstanceID=2000&ViewID=7b97f7ed-8e5...

[4] https://www.tahoedailytribune.com/news/washoe-county-school-district-drops-digital-days

[5] https://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2017/02/06/winter-fatal-car-accidents/97551588

[6] https://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2017/02/06/winter-fatal-car-accidents/97551588

[7] http://distracteddriveraccidents.com/10-winter-driving-tips

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect