Image credit: Sami Grover
This weekend I did a profoundly stupid, irresponsible thing. I packed up our car, wrapped up my eleven-week-old daughter, and tried to drive across the mountains from North Carolina through West Virginia to Indiana in record snowfall. 48 hours later, we reached Indianapolis. We weren't one of the unfortunate souls stuck in the snow for 24 hours with the National Guard feeding them, but that was more down to luck than judgment. I share this story not just as an embarrassed confession, or even as a warning to others to check weather reports more thoroughly before traveling, but because it occurs to me there may be some green lessons to be learned. And those lessons stretch beyond the obvious lessons of traffic management and disaster preparedness. I think they also touch on our mentality as ultra-mobile 21st Century citizens. Before I start, let me say this. I take full responsibility for getting my daughter stuck in a snowstorm—something I am genuinely ashamed about. Any lessons I suggest about better traffic, or information, management do not minimize the fact that I set out in dangerous conditions with my daughter in the car without knowing whether it was safe or not. Next time, I will stay at home.
Having said that, there's no doubt that much of the aggravation and danger faced by travelers and rescue workers alike could have been avoided. Here are a few things that would have helped. And please forgive me if I stick to a simple list format. I'm tired:
Ideas for Safer, More Efficient Roads:
Lessons from Experience
A Central Source for Traffic and Weather Information: It's fairly obvious that up-to-date information can reduce traffic jams. Prior to leaving, we did a cursory check of Weather.com to make sure all was well. While we saw snow was forecast, we didn't see any major warnings or travel advisories—though it is perfectly possible that I missed them (a bunch of people I spoke to seemed perfectly aware there was a major storm on the way).
The amazing thing, to me at least, was how hard it was to find reliable information once we were on the road. Having stopped early the first night in a hotel, finding out whether it was safe to move on the next morning was tough. Dialing 511 simply told us "there's snow and ice on the roads." True, but not exactly helpful. And most state or official traffic websites had next to nothing about current conditions of roads, so we were reliant on conflicting and sketchy reports from various fellow travelers on whether to stay or go. So off we went again, only to get stuck for 10 hours.
Once we got stuck, my sister-in-law managed to keep us updated via Google Maps. Had I been a more diligent reader of TreeHugger, I'd have already known that Google Maps now shows real-time traffic conditions. Lesson learned. But Google truly stepped in to fill the information gap that was so profoundly missing from State and Federal agencies.
As an aside, more information isn't always better information. Part of the trouble with stranded motorists occurred when people tried using their GPS systems to circumnavigate traffic jams, taking them off the interstates and onto unploughed mountain side roads...
Less Traffic and Freight on the Roads: It's obvious, but the less traffic there is on our roads, the less likely it is that snarl ups occur. Beyond convincing idiots like me that they shouldn't travel when it's unsafe, reducing truck and freight traffic in particular would make a massive difference in the safety and efficiency of our transportation networks. Each time the traffic got moving again, it was amazing how fast (some) truckers thought they could travel on such slippery, treacherous roads. And sure enough, each time one wreck was cleared up, it seemed another semi would jack-knife and the fun would start all over again.
That's not to say the truckers were always responsible for the accidents, nor that every trucker drove irresponsibly. More than once, I saw cars cut dangerously close to trucks, causing them to slam on the brakes needlessly. And truckers were among the most responsible once the traffic came to a standstill—helping organize a convoy of cars running out of fuel to get them off the road and keep everyone safe. But the fact remains, the less gigantic containers full of heavy goods we have traveling on our roads, the safer we all will be.
And obviously, if more reliable forms of intercity mass transit available, like modern high-speed rail for example, the easier it would be to reduce the number of travelers on the road.
A Shift in Mentality: Mobility is not a Given
Perhaps one of the most interesting lessons from this whole experience, for me, was how profoundly we have all internalized the idea that we must be able to travel how and when we want to. And this isn't just a case of one stupid TreeHugger not realizing the danger of Mother Nature. Sitting in the hotel that first morning, talking with fellow travelers, almost everyone seemed convinced they "had to be" wherever they were going, and it was inconceivable that the roads would not be clear by the afternoon.
"Of course they'll shift those trucks.", "It can't take them all day to fix these things." "Sure, they're asking us not to travel unless you have to, but they would say that..." These were all common refrains, and each of them, I think, shows how spoiled we are when it comes to travel.
Maybe we all need to slow down and accept that we can't always get where we want to go, when we want to go. I'll be keeping that in mind next time...