By Cailey Rizzo
December 04, 2019
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

As a new batch of winter weather conditions descend upon the United States this week, a new study is shedding light on road conditions as driving in mild snowfall can be just as hazardous for drivers that hit the road in a major snowstorm.

Research from the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies (CIMMS) in conjunction with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), published on Monday, found that about 54 percent of all snow-related fatal car crashes from 2015 to 2017 occurred when there wasn’t a National Weather Service (NWS) advisory or warning in effect.

While there might not be enough snow, freezing rain or black ice to necessitate the NWS issuing a warning, conditions can still prove perilous. For example, in 2016, there was a 36-car pileup in Central Pennsylvania caused by sudden and unexpected snow flurries.

“It was very short-lived and hardly produced any snow, but it came through and reduced visibility at the wrong time,” researcher Heather Reeves of CIMMS said of the incident. “This wasn’t the kind of thing that resulted in a weather advisory, because there wasn’t enough snow for that, but it’s the kind of thing we want there to be messaging for.”

In fact, only 46 percent of all snow-related fatalities on roads — which most commonly took place in the northeast according to the research — have an NWS advisory or warning. 

In places like Wisconsin, the large majority of road accidents occurred in 2017 when there was less than two inches of snowfall reported.

The NWS is investigating ways to warn drivers when road conditions are dangerous but the weather isn’t strong enough to issue an advisory or warning. The service will also try to warn airports and airlines when runways could become slick with black ice.

“The FAA’s goal is to improve safety and efficiency of flight by keeping national airspace running with minimal delays due to weather,” Reeves said. “That’s our goal as well — we always have an eye towards improving safety and efficiency.”

The publication of the research is quite timely as over the past week as The Weather Channel reported hundreds of car accidents from the Midwest to the Northeast during a winter storm that has resulted in several deaths. More snow is expected throughout the week following the wicked storm that hit parts of the U.S. during the week of Thanksgiving.  

As for the West Coast, the weather network also reported that rain and mountain snow are predicted to hit California on Friday. Flash flooding and debris flows could be common in northern California, especially land that has been recently burned in wildfires.

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