A seasonal greeting to rush-hour traffic

Dozens of accidents clog roads, highways

schools close early

December 06, 2007|By Frank D. Roylance and Michael Dresser | Frank D. Roylance and Michael Dresser,SUN REPORTERS

Baltimore, Washington and Maryland's northern counties fell into the "sweet spot" of yesterday's Alberta clipper snowstorm, which surprised commuters with an unexpected traffic nightmare and delighted school kids with the season's first all-day snow and early dismissals.

There was little accumulation on major highways, but the morning commute wheezed to a crawl anyway as motorists slipped on melting snow and icy overpasses. Weather-related collisions jammed corridor after corridor, as half-hour commutes became two-hour ordeals.

Dave Buck, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration, said many of the crashes were single-vehicle spin-outs, including one on Interstate 95 -- near Interstate 195 -- that left a vehicle upside down and caused a huge backup along the region's main north-south highway.

"It's generally an indication of people driving too fast for conditions," Buck said. "There are more SUVs -- the people who think they can do 70." The snow arrived earlier than expected during the morning rush hour, he said, so that salt trucks were stuck in the same traffic as everyone else. Spreading salt before the snow falls doesn't work, he said.

By midafternoon, snow accumulations across the state ranged from 1 inch in Prince George's County to 4.5 inches in Frederick and Washington counties. With temperatures expected to be in the 20s overnight and icy conditions likely this morning, some delayed school openings seemed likely.

Today was expected to dawn sunny and cold, but temperatures are expected to rise to nearly 40 degrees -- enough to melt away the reminder of yesterday's troubles.

The situation weighed heavily on school officials yesterday as they assessed road conditions and snow forecasts, and sent hundreds of thousands of students home early.

The districts fell like dominoes from west to east, as Washington, Frederick, Carroll, Baltimore and Harford counties decided to dismiss an hour or two ahead of schedule. Montgomery, Howard and Anne Arundel counties remained in session but canceled after-school activities.

In far Western Maryland, schools in Garrett and Allegany counties never opened for the day.

But the storm's biggest impact was on the roads, where accidents piled up faster than the snow.

As of 4 p.m., Howard County 911 dispatchers had received reports of 145 auto accidents, 70 of which involved injuries, said Debbie Saunders, a supervisor in the county's communications center.

Traffic backed up on many county roads as motorists slowed at accident scenes or to negotiate icy spots, especially on bridges such as the Route 100 overpass to southbound U.S. 29.

One serious accident in the 9700 block of Guilford Road, between I-95 and U.S. 1, about 9:50 a.m. sent two people to Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

At midafternoon, all three lanes of the westbound Bay Bridge were closed by a five-vehicle accident. It was quickly cleared and the span reopened.

Morning accidents jammed the I-95 corridor between Baltimore and Washington, and the I-395 spur that connects I-95 to downtown Baltimore. Motorists trying to avoid I-95 ran into collision-related jams on U.S. 1 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (Route 295).

Anne Arundel County fire crews responded to about 80 accidents yesterday, four times the normal workload. None involved major injuries.

Snow advisories, which signal snow-covered roads and poor visibility, were extended into the Washington, D.C., metro counties at 10 p.m. Tuesday and to the Baltimore suburbs just before 3 a.m. yesterday.

By afternoon, a heavy snow warning was up for Garrett County, where 5 to 8 inches were expected before midnight.

Many school buses in Baltimore County encountered slippery stretches of road. Just before 4 p.m. a bus carrying one student slid into a car near Tarragon and Caraway roads in the Franklin area, police said. No one was injured.

"There have been a few little bumps and slides, but nothing severe or serious," said Charles A. Herndon, a school spokesman. "Our buses are going so slowly that even if they begin to slide, they don't go very far, and nothing very serious happens."

If the weather caught people by surprise, meteorologists said they could explain why they didn't see it coming.

Alberta clippers originate on the arid Canadian prairie, according to Todd Miner, a meteorologist with Penn State Weather Communications. They don't generally bring a lot of moisture with them, so they don't generate more than 5 or 6 inches of snow on their best days.

But they do frequently drop that snow along a narrow swath -- 40 to 80 miles wide -- just north of the path of the storm's central low pressure area. That snowy corridor will frequently see 2 to 5 inches, he said.

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