The first accumulating snow event has already come and gone in eastern Iowa but the worst is still on the horizon. During the pandemic, driving behavior has been changing, and that is worrying researchers and officials as we head into the heart of winter – especially for the incredibly dangerous snow squalls.
Plows can try and keep up with heavy snowfall rates, however, a rare kind of weather event, snow squalls, can render plows useless due how fast the snow falls and how quickly conditions deteriorate.
“(Snow squalls) are not a case where you want to drive into one of these things, and then pull off,” said National Weather Service Warning Coordination Meteorologist Rich Kinney from the Davenport office. “You’ve already entered the dangerous part of the storm.”
Snow squalls quickly cover roads with snow, and with speeding drivers, the result is predictable.
February 5, 2018. A snow squall was moving through central Iowa. At noon, 2.5” of snow was measured at the Iowa State University Campus. Just a few miles away, about 30 minutes later, more than fifty vehicles were involved in this large pileup crash.
December 9, 2019. Just a half an inch of snow fell causing another fifty-vehicle pileup also on I-35. This time in Des Moines.
November 12, 2020. Twenty-nine vehicles were involved in a fiery pileup crash on I-94 near Monticello, MN, near Minneapolis. Just two inches of snow fell.
Just three recent examples when a little bit of snow caused big problems on regional Interstates.
University of Iowa Engineering Professor Daniel McGehee is the Director of the National Advanced Driving Simulator. He’s been studying driving behavior and researching new ways to keep drivers safe. He says this year could be an especially dangerous time on the roadways in part due to the coronavirus pandemic changing driving habits.
“In the COVID era, things are actually quite different,” McGehee said. “Fatalities are actually up this year even though for some portion of the drivers, our roads are 30-40 percent less populated than normal time.”
There’s concrete data to back that up. According to the Iowa State Patrol, there has been a substantial increase in motorists driving dangerously fast.
“Currently where we’re at, speeds over 100mph where we’ve written citations, we’ve been consistently at 100-110 percent above that normal average,” said Sergeant Alex Dinkla, Public Information Officer with the Iowa State Patrol. That’s an alarming statistic for us.
That percent change is compared to the previous four years.
“Now when we put a little bit of ice, little bit of snow, that’s going to cause a dramatic increase in crashes this winter,” McGehee said.
When dangerous winter weather hits, the safest course of action is to of course slow down and give yourself more stopping distance between you and the car in front of you. New this year, Snow Squall Warnings will be sent automatically directly to your phone.
If a warning is issued, the best thing you can do is pull off the road safely and part at a gas station or restaurant until the warning expires. The weather may be fine when you first receive the warning, but snow squalls are a rapid onset event, quickly turning to whiteout conditions.