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Road Ice: The Unseen Danger

It’s a marvel to behold for sure— the second longest cable-stayed bridge in North America and the widest bridge in the world—but figuring out the new Port Mann Bridge is proving to be a tricky exercise. Tolling, then falling ice, and now de-icing the road surface have all been problematic. At 4 am on Wednesday January 3rd, Mainroad Lower Mainland Contracting, the company responsible for winter maintenance, reportedly applied a saltwater solution to the bridge deck that was expected to effectively de-ice it for the next 48 hours.

However, 26 hours later —by Thursday January 4th at around 6 am—the beginning of ‘rush hour’ traffic over the bridge was halted by a series of crashes involving 40 vehicles. Despite no signs of ice at 5 am that same morning, a spokesperson for the company that runs the bridge, Transportation Investment Corporation, said the situation “was likely a combination of the weather and the fog … [leading] to rapid ice accumulation.”

Traffic speed was also a factor. “In the past,” he said, “drivers would have being going much slower because the old bridge was routinely congested.” It could have been worse. Reports also indicated, “Paramedics gave first aid to several people and one person was taken to hospital with minor injuries.”

Apart from the ‘brine solution’ aspect, however, lower mainland drivers might consider this as more than another ‘Port Mann’ bridge story and be thankful for the wake-up call it has given everyone. Bridge decks, winter temperatures, precipitation, and motor vehicles are a potentially lethal combination. Indeed, as the website IcyRoadSafety.com puts it, “[road] icing is more likely to threaten your life than any other weather condition you’ll ever face” …and … “[the] most insidious type of road icing threat comes from bridges and overpasses.”

IcyRoadSafety.com, created by Dan Robinson, a storm chaser and photojournalist who as a “freelance cameraman … spent many years documenting all types of dangerous weather across the country,” emphasizes two important points: first, our collective underestimation of the danger posed by the “lowly snowflake or frozen raindrop” compared to the extreme weather ‘stars’ of TV documentaries, such as tornadoes, hailstorms, floods, lightning storms or hurricanes. Second, he emphasizes the realities of the road icing risk:

1. Some of the worst icy road accident outbreaks occur with freezing precipitation, which creates road ice that is not visually distinguishable from wet roads.
2. Many accidents result from drivers who were not operating their vehicles in a careless manner, but had no advance warning of an icing hazard.
3. The true road ice hazard is subtle and intermittent icing due to light winter precipitation, events that suffer from a lack of highly visual cues and public awareness.
4. A factor in many of the serious and fatal crashes is overconfidence in one’s abilities and/or equipment (traction control, antilock brakes, stability control, good tires).
5. For black ice, no speeds are completely safe.
6. While good tires can sometimes help you move on icy roads, they don’t help you stop and they won’t keep you from losing control at high speeds.

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