By Francis M. Smith
With more than a month remaining until the official start of winter, the snowstorm earlier this month caught forecasters, municipalities, and commuters equally off-guard. With some areas of the state receiving as much as 8 inches of snow, a far cry from the 2 inches widely predicted in the days prior, commuters across the state found themselves losing several hours to impassible roads and traffic jams caused by hundreds of collisions.
A significant contributing factor to the chaos was that the amount of snow that fell was easily four times as much as weather models had predicted. The night before the storm, weather forecasters anticipated 2 inches of snow, with an additional one-tenth of an inch of freezing rain – which in itself would have created hazardous conditions on roads across the state. These models were updated only a few hours before the snow began to fall, leaving commuters and transportation workers scrambling to adapt to the new, much heavier forecast. As of 4:30 PM, New Jersey state troopers had already responded to 441 motor vehicle accidents, and the New Jersey Department of Transportation imposed speed restrictions on sizable chunks of the New Jersey Turnpike.
In any snowstorm, bridges are especially dangerous places for vehicles. By their very nature, they create a bottleneck that funnels traffic into a relatively narrow space, with no opportunity to turn off or choose another route until the bridge has been crossed. Bridges are often raised above the level of the surrounding roadway, requiring vehicles to ascend a slope to enter the bridge and descend again to exit. Worse still, bridges lack the insulation that the ground provides to other roadways, causing them to freeze more readily than terrestrial roads. These dangerous conditions created delays along many major commuter routes; travelers were advised by the Port Authority to avoid the George Washington Bridge, which had been the scene of a multiple-vehicle collision that resulted in a significant traffic backup. The westbound upper level of the GWB saw further delays as road crews needed to hold traffic in order to clear ice. The Bayonne Bridge was closed down entirely during the storm, as it was too steep for vehicles to manage in the snowy conditions.
As roads became increasingly impassible, due to weather conditions or auto accidents, many drivers abandoned their vehicles on highways that had transformed into parking lots. Others remained stuck in their vehicles awaiting rescue for hours. Police struggled to direct traffic despite having no safer alternative routes to redirect drivers onto. One Newark police officer was struck by a vehicle while working to divert traffic; the officer’s injuries were reportedly not life-threatening.
Some commuters, electing to forgo the roads entirely, turned to public transportation as a means of getting home, joining those who rely on public transit as a matter of course. Regrettably, these commuters did not fare much better than those behind the wheel in their efforts to avoid delays. Buses were, of course, subject to the same road conditions and traffic delays that passenger vehicles experienced, with the added frustration of being turned away from overcrowded bus terminals and urged by Port Authority workers to find another way home. The NJ Transit train service suffered system-wide delays of at least 60 minutes, and service on the Gladstone line was suspended through most of Friday, following a fatal collision with a passenger automobile directly attributable to the storm conditions. Other lines experienced suspended service due to fallen trees disrupting power lines.
Municipalities and state agencies worked to respond effectively to the sudden storm, with at least 825 snowplows and spreaders on the roads clearing highways at one point, according to the New Jersey Department of Transportation’s Twitter account. By the end of Thursday, State police had responded to almost 1,000 crashes and assisted nearly twice as many drivers on major highways across the state.
This snowstorm makes 2018 the third year within a decade that New Jersey has experienced a major autumn snowfall. Though climatologists point out that this isn’t enough data to demonstrate a clear trend, New Jersey residents may be forgiven for wondering if a pattern may be starting to show itself. It may be worth asking if this series of unusually early snowstorms should point to a shift in the way the State and local governments prepare for, and respond to, early winter weather. For the present, however, New Jersey commuters should make sure their winter tires are in good condition and their emergency kits are packed in their car trunks, and pay careful attention to the weather reports. If you are unlucky enough to be struck and injured by another vehicle driven by someone not driving with the caution necessary under such circumstances, contact an experienced attorney as soon as possible, to determine if you have a cause of action to pursue, and how to go about securing for you the compensation you need and deserve given the facts of your case.