The Jones Falls Expressway was reduced to a parking lot on Tuesday morning. Some school systems decided to stay open when others in the region closed — which turned out to be the better call under the circumstances. Roads were a mess, and drivers failed to exercise appropriate caution. Minor accidents littered the commuter landscape.
In other words, Baltimore failed its first significant snow event of the winter — a storm that, while ill-timed, wasn't exactly the return of snowmaggedon. It wasn't even last year's polar vortex. The clipper system, a relatively fast-moving visitor from western Canada, deposited between 2 to 6 inches of snow in Maryland by mid-afternoon.
Did Baltimore drivers suddenly forget how to deal with snow and ice? Are we so badly out of practice that we needed a one-day refresher course? Were snow removal crews stymied by the traffic jams or still a bit out of shape from their warm-weather hibernation?
The bottom line is that a few inches of powdery snow shouldn't result in as painful and slow a morning commute as Tuesday's turned out to be for the Baltimore region. Not when the weather was so accurately forecast in advance. Not when most schools closed. Not under conditions that are fairly typical for January in the Mid-Atlantic.
Maryland State Highway Administrator Melinda Peters blamed several factors beginning with the fact the storm was an "over performer," dumping more snow and shifting further south than initially forecast, and it was the first one of the year. But much of the problem she attributed to the human factor and the failure of commuters to heed warnings.
She has a point. The reason the Jones Falls was such a mess was that an early morning accident shut it down. Snow removal was behind schedule in many places because the traffic was so heavy that plows couldn't get where they needed to be. There weren't fewer crews on the roads. (SHA had its full 2,000 on state roads and pre-treated highways in advance.)
The agency had even warned drivers a full 24 hours earlier that the storm was coming and they'd be better off staying home or going to work late. But few seemed to take that warning seriously as officials said morning traffic was the normal heavy volume. And too many motorists proved overconfident, driving at speeds that weren't justified given the treacherous conditions, and the resulting fender benders made matters worse.
The heads of the two Baltimore area school systems that opened on-time and as usual are likely going to feel some heat from parents and teachers who believe they made the wrong call, particularly Anne Arundel County where the snowfall was heavier. But having sometimes criticized superintendents for doing the reverse — closing schools at the first flake — we are somewhat sympathetic in this case.
As Baltimore schools CEO Gregory Thornton observed today , two inches of snow should not force kids to stay home and lose out on instruction and the other benefits provided for them at school. Some city schools reported high absenteeism (as much as 50 percent in some cases), at least two buses were involved in minor accidents and one student was hit by a car crossing a street to school. But the risk posed by closing schools — loss of adult supervision, proper nutrition and after-school child care, services that are especially vital to lower-income families — is significant, too.
Keeping schools open is also not a bad message to send to city kids: It demonstrates a day of school is taken very seriously in the city whether there is snow or not. Teachers must have agreed. According to Mr. Thornton, there were some city schools that didn't have a single teacher absent despite the conditions.
As for the rest of us, we'll just have to take a mulligan and hope to do better the next time snow is in the forecast. Baltimore isn't Buffalo. Drivers unaccustomed to such weather deserve a do-over. But let's not make it a habit, OK?