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Watch out for snow squalls, Pa. officials warn

Wolf Administration Reminds Drivers of the Threat of Snow Squalls
Anthony Grove
/
Commonwealth Media Services
Greg Devoir, Lead Meteorologist with the National Weather Service State College, speaks during Monday’s press conference in Harrisburg, PA on November 14, 2022. The Wolf Administration, along with the National Weather Service (NWS), is reminding drivers of the threat that snow squalls can pose during the winter months and advised them to observe warnings related to these dangerous weather hazards during Snow Squall Awareness Week, November 14 – 18.

Pennsylvania transportation and law enforcement leaders are preparing for the possibility of snow squalls this winter season.

Sometimes referred to as whiteouts, snow squalls are fast-moving storms that can appear out of nowhere – and cover a roadway with blizzard conditions in mere minutes. One such storm that struck a portion of I-81 in Schuylkill County in late March caused an 80-vehicle pileup that left six people dead and several dozen more injured.

I-81 snow squall crash PA.jpeg
David McKeown
/
Republican-Herald via AP
Interstate 81 North near the Minersville exit, Foster Twp., Pa., was the scene of a multi-vehicle crash on Monday, March 28, 2022.

A video of the incident shows drivers standing near the pileup when oncoming traffic comes careering out of the blizzard and nearly hits them. That behavior pushed agencies like the Pennsylvania State Police to share safety tips ahead of this season’s major winter weather.

“Do not stand outside of your vehicle if it is on or near the roadway [in a snow squall],” Pennsylvania State Police Corporal Brent Miller said at a Monday news conference. “If you are involved in a pileup crash, you will be safer in your vehicle with your seatbelt fastened.”

Meteorologist Greg Devoir of the National Weather Service explained snow squalls are particularly dangerous because they can make roads dangerous on a dime: visibility can drop to zero and roads can become slippery without warning. Though areas of Pennsylvania closest to Lake Erie are the most susceptible to the storms, they can occur anywhere under the right conditions.

“Road surface temperatures can be well above freezing when a squall arrives,” Devoir said. “The air temperature might be in the mid-20s [and] road surface temperature near 50, and you get the melting and the freezing and a flash freeze.”

Devoir said radar and weather satellites can accurately track squalls when they appear, but the system isn’t foolproof. All the more reason for drivers to be wary, he added.

“With a smaller storm or a snow squall that’s really small, [radar] beams can overshoot that. We use other observational systems, but that is a challenge,” Devoir said. “Our best intent is to warn for every weather hazard, [but] even with severe weather that’s not always possible.”

Some parts of Pennsylvania have already seen a little bit of snow in the past few days – and may see even more this week.

To remind drivers to slow down when winter conditions flare up, PennDOT installed more than 40 new variable speed limit signs that can instantly change along Interstates 80, 81 and 78. Acting Deputy Secretary for Highway Administration Mike Keiser said speeds on those signs will drop when the weather calls for it. Until recently, PennDOT had deployed just 14 of them.

The majority of those new signs are along I-81, near the place where the 80 car pileup happened earlier this year. Transportation studies suggest the signs have made roads in Europe, where they’re commonplace, much safer.

“When needed, [variable speed limit signs] effectively slowed traffic and reduced or eliminated crashes,” Kaiser said. “We’re pleased to bring one more safety measure to our roadways.”

Unless you have to travel in bad weather, state leaders say you should stay home. If you’re caught in a snow squall, keep calm, slow down and increase the space between you and vehicles around you. Only leave your car if absolutely necessary – and only when it’s safe to do so.