The Dangers of Driving on Snow in the PNW

Car Driving in Winter
Photo by Anne Nygård from Unsplash

Snow in Western Washington doesn’t come every day, but when it does, people pay attention to it. They have to, considering how much chaos it causes. Buses have to go on snow routes, school is canceled, it’s difficult to get to work and the entirety of the state decides that it’s time to make banana french toast, leaving local grocery stores with nary a banana in sight. It’s chaos. But among all of that, one thing always stands out whenever Western Washington gets snow: the driving, or more accurately, how much of a nightmare driving is. Like clockwork, videos go out all over social media of some poor souls trying to drive up a hill, down a hill, or just drive in general, with things just not going well. As of 10 p.m. on Dec. 28, the Washington State Patrol had responded to 279 car crashes in King County, and as of Dec. 29, State Patrol troopers had to respond to over 700 car crashes on freeways and state highways. All of that has happened due to several inches of snow. So why does this happen seemingly every time there is snow?

When compared to other parts of the United States such as the Midwest, the amount of snow that falls in Seattle and surrounding areas seems negligible, especially since parts of the Midwest are currently expecting a snowstorm to bring them around a foot of snow. So why do road conditions end up giving drivers a hard time? An article from King 5 explained how snow in other places such as the Midwest forms in a different way than snow in the Pacific Northwest. The snow that falls there is usually dry snow that has more friction when compacted. But compare that to the Pacific Northwest, which to put it in simple terms, ends up being far from dry. The snow that first fell will usually melt and then freeze into a layer of ice, which is then covered by more snow, which means that in the Pacific Northwest, drivers are not only driving on snow but also ice, leading to the slipping and sliding cars that seem to be a staple of snowstorms in the Seattle area. Also, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation Road Weather Project, when temperatures are above freezing during the day but below-freezing temperatures at night, the snow will melt into slush, and then that slush will become ice once the temperature drops. To put everything in one sentence, the roads are dangerous because motorists end up driving on ice that is either half-melted or just melted enough to create even less friction than the driver would normally encounter.