Blizzards as lifesavers Storms are credited for cutting deaths by keeping many inside

Blizzard Of 1996

January 10, 1996|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

It's a headline you'll never see: "Lifesaving Blizzard Hits East Coast."

But despite the media's careful compilation of "storm-related deaths," the statistics, the observations of police and the opinions of accident researchers all agree: Storms like this one -- probably save more lives than they take.

The major reason is simple. Far fewer people drive during storms, and those who do brave the blizzard in cars keep their speed down. A second factor: Fewer street murders occur on snow-blanketed streets.

Of course, on the other side of the scale are the familiar victims of winter storms: snow shovelers whose hearts give out, homeless people who succumb to exposure, those who die in fires caused by jury-rigged heaters, people murdered in parking-space spats.

But overall, the roads ordinarily claim more victims than any other cause of death the life-preserving effect is probably dominant.

"We've had no road deaths in Maryland during this storm -- which is very common," Michael J. McKelvin, a State Police spokesman, said yesterday. By comparison, during the period Jan. 6 to Jan. 9, 1994, five people died on the state's roads, he said. The toll for the same days last year was also five -- roughly in line with the average number of January traffic deaths in the state for the last three years of 1.5 per day.

"People are stuck at home," Mr. McKelvin said. "Most accidents are low-speed, skidding off the road. The trouble is not usually the severity of the injuries, it's getting them out of the ditch."

Murderers likewise seem to be taking time off. A 36-year-old West Baltimore woman, beaten to death early Monday by an intruder wielding a baseball bat, was the only reported murder victim in Baltimore since the storm began. Ordinarily the city sees nearly one killing per day.

"Generally in severe weather -- snowstorm, real cold weather, hard rain -- street crime decreases, including murder," said Col. Steven A. Crumrine, chief of the criminal investigation bureau of the Baltimore police department. On Monday, the number of serious crimes reported in the city was about one-third of an average day, he said.

As of late yesterday, Maryland officials had attributed two deaths to the storm: a train operator killed Sunday when his train slid into another on slick tracks in Montgomery County, and a 71-year-old Anne Arundel County man felled by a heart attack shoveling snow Monday.

Susan P. Baker, a prominent injury expert at the John Hopkins School of Public Health, said she knows of no scientific studies of the net impact of snowstorms on deaths, which she called "a very interesting question." But she said existing research would support the life-saving theory.

"If you look at winter vs. summer, in summer there are far more people dying in accidents, because far more people are driving," Ms. Baker said. The bigger numbers more than compensate for the hazards of winter roads, she said.

Statistics for 1994 compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration support the safety-in-snow thesis. Of crashes in which no one was injured, more than 5 percent occurred in snow or sleet. But of fatal crashes, less than 2 percent occurred in those conditions.

Of course, forcing people out of their cars and into their houses doesn't eliminate all danger. Of an average of 250 accidental deaths nationwide per day, the biggest share -- 118 deaths a day -- are traffic deaths. But the next largest share -- 73 deaths -- are accidents in the home, said Alan F. Hoskin, a statistician with the National Safety Council.

Those at-home accidents are dominated by falls, poisoning, fires and choking, said Mr. Hoskin. Their numbers may climb when people are cooped up, but probably not nearly as much as road deaths decline, he said.

Accidental deaths on the job average about 14 a day, Mr. Hoskin said. So closing workplaces ought to save a few lives. "But those that have to be out in the storm -- snowplow drivers and police and so on -- are at much greater risk," he said. "So it's hard to tell what the net effect might be."

Indeed, the whole business of weighing the impact of storms on deaths is a tricky business, Mr. Hoskin said. For instance, the National Climatic Data Center uses rules for distinguishing "storm deaths" from "traffic deaths" that seem a little arbitrary.

"If a tree falls on your car during a storm, that's a storm death," Mr. Hoskin said. "But if your car hits a tree that's already fallen during a storm, that's a traffic death."

So if blizzards save lives, why do the media highlight the death toll?

"I think in reporting any story, journalists are taught that human life is the ultimate value," said Joe Saltzman, professor of journalism at the University of Southern California. "So the first question we ask on any story is, what's the death toll?"

Deaths prevented don't make such gripping stories as deaths that occur, he said, and deaths caused by a storm that readers experience are particularly moving.

"Even if on a clear day 60 people die, they die in a variety of ways," Mr. Saltzman said. "But 20 deaths all attributed to a blizzard are more compelling and understandable."

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