Don't blame weather for 'weather-related' crashes

The Baltimore Sun

Two weeks ago this afternoon, an inch and a half of snow fell in Western Maryland.

It should have been no big deal. Snow has been falling in that location, near Myersville in Frederick County, since long before there was a Maryland.

What was different this time was that some of that snow fell on Interstate 70. Sometime after the snow began falling, there occurred a chain-reaction crash involving 47 vehicles, including six tractor-trailers. Two women died in the pileup. At least a dozen people were seriously injured. The Associated Press, quoting a state police spokeswoman, reported that "snow was at least partly to blame."

Interesting. Will Mr. Snow face manslaughter charges? How else do we hold Mr. Snow accountable?

Defense counsel, of course, could point out that snow is merely a frozen form of dihydrogen monoxide, quite inanimate, and thus unable to form the requisite intent to be held criminally liable under Maryland law. Nor could its actions be construed as negligent because Mr. Snow's job is to fall upon the Earth's surface.

Of course, "snow to blame" is merely a form of shorthand for what the state police were actually saying: that "inclement weather may have been a contributing factor." But that "blame" terminology reflects a dangerous mental sloppiness in our perception of traffic crashes. Collectively, we stretch to find causes other than human stupidity, carelessness and bad behavior to explain collisions.

Thus, a Google search of chain-reaction crashes shows that Mr. Snow and his cronies Mr. Fog, Mr. Rain and Mr. Ice have a long record of blame for such catastrophes. Even Messrs. Reindeer got in on the mayhem. The animals were reported to have "caused" a six-vehicle chain reaction in Minnesota that started while they were in a trailer. Neat trick, Blitzen.

Homicidal ruminants notwithstanding, few traffic "accidents" are entirely beyond our control. Yes, in the odd case a driver might have a heart attack or a suicidal deer might leap in front of a car traveling at a sensible speed. But usually you can point the finger at good old human error in one of its abundant forms.

That is especially true with these chain-reaction pileups in challenging weather conditions. The original sin in these crashes is almost always somebody's attempt to drive too fast for conditions. It doesn't matter what the posted speed limit is. When snow, ice and fog are in the picture, traveling the speed limit can be as reckless as driving drunk.

As anyone who has driven Maryland roads can attest, there is no more common driving mistake than the failure to slow down in response to the weather. Try driving down Interstate 95 at the speed limit in a cold rain with temperatures around freezing. Notice how many drivers of cars and trucks breeze by you at 75 or 80 mph.

It could take months before the state police investigation of the Myersville crash is complete, but the early indication is that the chain of events began with the driver of a brown minivan losing control of the vehicle on the snow-covered interstate. As of last week, police were still looking for that motorist, who left the scene. Chances are, speed had more than a little to do with that loss of control.

Then there's that matter of the 46 vehicles that got caught up in the chain reaction. How many of those were themselves traveling too fast, tailgating or text-messaging when an emergency arose ahead of them?

Especially disturbing is the involvement of six tractor-trailers. These drivers are supposed to be professionals. But hardly a snowfall goes by here without a report of a "jackknifed tractor-trailer." Maybe I'm naive, but I doubt that safely driven rigs jackknife very often.

What can we do? First, stop blaming weather for crashes and keep an eye out for the real culprit: us. Second, when snow and ice are in the picture, consider getting off the interstates and onto parallel highways where speeds are lower and trucks less numerous. Third, when roads are slick, drive terrified.

Shrink your E-ZPass bill

The Maryland Transportation Authority's $1.50-a-month fee on E-ZPass accounts is now a done deal. So is its $21 charge for new or replacement transponders. It was a sad but necessary step, the agency said. But for many account holders, there may be a way to minimize the impact.

First, the charge is per account, not per transponder. If you now have multiple transponders in the family with separate accounts, you can and should consolidate them in a single account (up to four transponders per nonbusiness account). If you do, keep the account with the newest transponder and turn in the older ones. Replacements are free until the change takes effect July 1, and it makes sense to turn in your five- or six-year-old device now. Transponders have an estimated life span of seven years.

I went to the E-ZPass office the day the fee was adopted and had no problem combining my account with my wife's and getting rid of a transponder that probably would have died in a few months anyway. Savings: $39 in Year One, $108 over the next six.

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