Ice storm chase safety

Dan Robinson

Thought I'd toss out a word of caution for anyone venturing out into these incredible series of icing events. They present a unique set of dangers and issues to the chaser:

1.) Iced-over roads - glaze ice is the worst type of winter precipitation to drive on. There will be virtually zero traction. Speeds above 25-30mph will all but guarantee a wreck. A vehicle in motion on glaze ice will not stop even on the slightest grade. Roads that have slight convex cross-sections (for drainage) are very easy to slide off of, even at very low speeds. Loss of control is very easy and rapid.

Remember if you slide off the road, other cars are probably going to lose it at that same spot and could hit you. Get away from the road if you crash. If traffic is heavy, stay in your car - you'll survive a hit better in the car than outside!

Where sleet mixes in with freezing rain, the roads are much easier to navigate.

2.) Falling tree branches - a very real threat to a chaser driving or walking around. I have had several close calls with falling limbs during ice storms. Don't drive or walk down streets lined with trees or under ice-laden branches.

3.) Car doors - ice storms can make your vehicle impossible to get in and out of. Freezing rain can trickle down inside your car's latching mechanism before freezing, rendering the latch inoperable. If this happens you will not be able to open the doors from either inside or out. This happened to me in St. Louis last month. Be careful leaving your car sitting for long periods of time while freezing rain is falling.

4.) Be prepared for a disaster situation. Ice storms can be just like hurricanes - no power, no gas stations working, no places to buy food or water, not hotel rooms available. You can sleep in your car after a hurricane - but not after an ice storm! Chasing an ice storm requires the same amount of planning and survival preparedness as chasing a hurricane. You need extra food and water in your vehicle (and extra gas, if you can safely transport it) as well as dry clothes and blankets if you get stuck.
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One of my troopers learned all about the hazards of #1 last night. We had about an hour of moderate freezing rain that caused the interstate to turn into a skating rink. He was out of his car working on a couple of crashes when a another mope hit his cruiser from behind and totaled it.

His excuse: "I was only going 65"
Roads that have slight convex cross-sections (for drainage) are very easy to slide off of, even at very low speeds. Loss of control is very easy and rapid.

A few years back I was traveling to Ohio during a January winter storm that had a narrow band of icing that cut across Louisville, KY. Traffic became stalled there on the interstate due to collisions ahead, and after sitting in the right lane for several minutes with the rented Chrysler 300 in park, the car began to slide dead sideways, very slowly toward the steep embankment on the right. There was nothing I could do with cars directly in front and in back.

To this day, I don't know why (beyond answered prayer) it stopped sliding. It was quite an unnerving moment, one that reinforces Dan's statment about domed road surfaces under ice.
1.) Don't!

(Okay, okay, I know -- if we wanted to live like grandmas we wouldn't be stormchasers. ;))

I should mention, too, the obvious -- roads FREEZE up at night, so sometimes roads that were fine during the day will turn into rinks after the sun goes down... and often without much warning.

One rule of thumb is to watch the spray coming off of the back of semis. If the pavement is "wet" but the trucks no longer are kicking up any spray, that's a bad sign.
Not sure if you heard about people were killed in a minivan out by Elk City, Oklahoma. The roads were not bad at the time, but they hit one slick spot and went into the other lane...right into a semi. 7 of the 12 were ejected, and those were the 7 killed. So remember...buckle up please!
Might wanna carry a few bags of sand as well; if not only for added weight on the tires for somewhat better traction (void ice, obviously), it may aid in helping get your vehicle going from a stop if you're stuck on an ice patch.

Or if you need to pull off the road to park if you feel it is unsafe to continue, and you have no other place to park, perhaps pouring lines/piles of sand to park your tires on may keep you from sliding even while stopped; as Dave Gallaher's predicament showed us can happen.