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How Virginia officials hope to avoid a repeat of the snowy shutdown of I-95

A winter storm stranded hundreds of drivers and passengers on Interstate 95 in early January.
A winter storm stranded hundreds of drivers and passengers on Interstate 95 in early January.(Source: Virginia Department of Transportation via AP)
Published: Apr. 8, 2022 at 8:21 AM EDT
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One of the first ideas proposed in Virginia after a January snowstorm left thousands of motorists stranded overnight on Interstate 95, some for nearly 24 hours, was a law requiring tractor-trailers to stay in the right-hand lane during winter storms.

After pushback from the trucking industry and concerns it might create a wall of trucks that would block other vehicles from getting on or off the highway, the proposal was scaled down to only prohibit truckers from using cruise control or compression brakes in wintry weather, while specifying police can’t enforce those rules by pulling truckers over.

If signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, the bill would mostly send a signal to truckers to drive cautiously around snow, sleet or ice to prevent the jack-knife crashes that contributed to the total shutdown of a major highway on a frigid night just after New Year’s Day.

“Generally speaking, the truckers got the message,” said Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Alexandria, who sponsored the bill as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “A little good came of it.”

Three months after the I-95 fiasco, with most of the General Assembly’s work for the year nearly wrapped up, state policymakers just received a state-commissioned report delving into what went wrong and what can be done to avoid a repeat the next time a snowstorm hits. There were no deaths or serious injuries during the highway blockage, which stretched 40 miles from the Fredericksburg area to Northern Virginia.

The 41-page report, completed for $79,427 by a consulting firm that has an ongoing contract with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, concluded the state government “collectively lost situational awareness” of how bad the blockages were in an event that stretched over two days. But it largely validates state officials’ explanations that the unusual weather (rain and warmth followed by rapid snow and fast-dropping temperatures) created “cascading challenges” that severely limited how the state could respond.

Those problems, according to the report, included power outages that knocked out traffic cameras, a faulty generator at a Virginia State Police communications center, “inoperable cell towers,” the state’s real-time traffic information system crashing and failing to update for four hours and the lack of a readily available state helicopter that could have given officials a better view of how bad the traffic backups were.

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.(Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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