Beltway Blizzard Bumper Cars

On a day when DC area schools are shut down for miles in each direction because of something on the order of one inch of snow, Stacy McCain reflects on the phenomenon of “Beltway blizzard bumper cars.”

Ignoring common cautions most Americans learned as 15-year-olds — e.g., always check your blind spot before changing lanes to your right — D.C. drivers crash with astonishing frequency, a persistent problem that peaks during periods of precipitation. A brief shower is sure to result in dozens of traffic tie-ups caused by morons fishtailing into guardrails, and snow sends the region spiraling into vehicular paralysis.

The Beltway media establishment panders shamelessly to Washington’s fear of snow. Days before the arrival of potential snowstorms, TV stations in the nation’s capital begin broadcasting dire declarations of impending doom. “Storm Watch” logos appear on the screen, as TV weathermen trade snow banter with blow-dried anchorpersons, engaging in what can only be described as “accumulation speculation.” Will the snow melt or stick? How many inches? Will it be bad enough to close schools? Is the apocalypse at hand?

This isn’t entirely a Beltway phenomenon, of course; most of the Deep South goes into similar panic over the threat of modest snow. Then again, at least people down there know how to drive in the rain. And I darn sure never heard of “sun delays” until moving to these parts.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Ugh says:

    The phenomenon is compounded by the idiots who think their SUVs means they can still drive 65 in blizzard conditions and make them immune to the laws of physics.

    When we had the first real snow a few weeks ago my wife and I were driving back from Baltimore and must have seen the aftermath of 12 accidents in less than an hour – most of which involved SUVs.

  2. just me says:

    I think one problem with small amounts of snow it that those small amounts are enough to make the roads slick, but also make people too stupid to drive safely in it, because it is a small amount.

    I also recall the response to snow in the South, where one inch of snow could shut school down, and a few more inches would shut schools down for days.

    When we first moved to NH I remember being shocked one day when it snowed about three or so inches and the schools didn’t close-they didn’t even have a delay.

  3. Terrence says:

    yeah, dad gum SUV’s. It’s all their fault. And Bush’s.

  4. John Burgess says:

    SUVs don’t cause accidents.

    It’s the a-holes attempting to drive SUVs, who have no clue about what they’re actually driving, who cause accidents.

    But a word on DC driving…

    I’ve lived in various parts of the US and find that every area has its own bad habits. DC is the unfortunate magnet for employees (most of whom drive) from around the country–and the world, for that matter. Those drivers bring their regional idiosyncrasies with them. When they get mixed and matched, particularly in unknown weather, the result is what we see: chaos.

  5. Tim C says:

    A helicopter traffic reporter, Keith Kalland, once remarked that Atlanta drivers believe that moisture falling from the sky was a sign from God that you were supposed to crash your car into something.

  6. Ugh says:

    JB – I don’t think I said anything different (to wit “the idiots who think”).

  7. I lived in Huntsville, AL for a few years after growing up near Chicago and always laughed at what a dusting of snow did to the local populace. Then I moved to Reston, VA, where the same amount of snow had an even greater deleterious effect, probably because the folks there take themselves so much more seriously. Now I live in St. Louis where we’ve been hammered this year with storms, snow and ice. I have been able to look out of my office window and see snow piled up in the parking lot every day since we moved in in the middle of December. People here do seem to do better driving on ice and snow than those in Alabama and Northern Virginia, but to be fair they do get more practice.

    However, there is one notable exception to this observation — Lexus drivers. Apparently, a significant percentage of the folks who have bought a Lexus were told by the dealers that they won’t slip and slide on ice and snow and therefore there is no reason to slow down in hazardous conditions. Not all Lexus drivers mind you, but it does seem as though when one vehicle is driving noticeably faster than everyone else on a road covered with ice, as often as not they are driving a Lexus.

    OT – the perfect weight distribution front to back and side to side that make my RX-8 so fun to drive in normal conditions make it almost untenable to drive in these conditions. If I come to a stop on an incline covered with ice it is almost impossible to get enough traction to get started again without sliding off the road. Maybe I should get a Lexus.

  8. Bill W says:

    In relation to John Burgess’ comment:
    I grew up outside DC. A little snow, and most of them forget how to drive. Florida, where I now live, is about 5,000 times worse, because you get the same regional factor you mentioned combined with both old and young drivers at the same time. Add a little rain shower and it’s bumper cars all over.

  9. Arcs says:

    I learned a lesson during the short while I was commuting between Reston and McLean VA. If it snows an inch, stay home. If it snows a foot, it’s safe to drive to work.

  10. Robert Stacy McCain says:

    Bill wrote:

    I grew up outside DC. A little snow, and most of them forget how to drive.

    They never knew how to drive to begin with, Bill. Fair weather (and the snail’s pace of DC rush-hour traffic) allows the commuter the illusion that he can drive. But real driving — that is, matery of the kind of skills necessary to avoid disaster in unfavorable conditions — is not an ability that can be developed by crawling around the Beltway at 20 mph, or by driving the short, familiar route to the nearest shopping center. The average suburban commuter lacks high-order driving skills because he has no opportunity to develop or practice them. That’s why the roster of NASCAR champions will never list “Bethesda, Md.” as the champion’s hometown.

  11. Robert Stacy McCain says:

    … matery of the kind of skills necessary …

    Should be mastery of the kind of skills necessary … to avoid stupid typos!

  12. Bill W says:

    Actually, believe it or not, 10 years ago you could actually do 60 MPH on the beltway during rush hour. I moved away from there around then, and the last time I was up there, this past November(family still lives around there), I was aghast at how much worse traffic had gotten. I’m so glad I moved.

    On a related note, most of my friends and I taught ourselves how to drive in the snow in those nice deserted mall parking lots shortly after they were covered in inch+ snow. Learning how to drive in any weather takes practice, so that’s what we did. It’s saved my bacon several times in bad weather since.

  13. Robert Stacy McCain says:

    On a related note, most of my friends and I taught ourselves how to drive in the snow in those nice deserted mall parking lots shortly after they were covered in inch+ snow.

    And wasn’t that FUN? I started out trail-riding on a 70CC Honda dirt bike when I was 13. Mud-bogging and other off-road fun helps teach you a thing or two about traction, momentum and some of the other physics-type stuff that most drivers probably never think about — until it’s too late.

  14. Steve Verdon says:

    Moved to proper thread.

  15. John Burgess says:

    Bill W: I too now live in FL, and yes, you certainly have a point. But wet roads are, I believe, intrinsically less threatening than snowy or icy roads. I don’t see all that much slip-sliding around me. The ‘blue hair’ hazard and the likkered-up Cracker teen add to the excitement, but they’re usually pretty easy to identify at a distance.

    My younger brother and I were lucky in that our driving instruction was passed on to two uncles. One was a bus driver, the other a state trooper. Both were in agreement that any clown can drive on a dry, sunny day, so they took us out only in foul weather and bad conditions. Black ice in fog was a favorite and would see us on both the MA Pike and winding through the Berkshires on 1.5-lane roads at night.

  16. Only one noticeable snowfall in my part of the world this winter. My mentioning that will bring more.

  17. superdestroyer says:

    I love it when people who live in other parts of the country criticize DC. I wonder how many people in St Louis live more than 20 miles from where they work versus DC. The road in DC are alreays over capacity and when it snows the capacity limit goes way down. Remember, there is a price to pay for slowing down.

    You also have to remember that many of the roads/highways in DC are just not built to take bad weather like the Whitehurst Freeway or the skyramp at 395/95.

  18. Superdestroyer, well, I did live in the DC area and moved to St. Louis from there. Before denigrating the good citizens of St. Louis, I might ask have you ever lived here?

    I admit I do not have the statistics readily handy and don’t see the point in looking them up right now, but I believe the average commute in St. Louis isn’t vastly different than that of the DC area, though admittedly the traffic isn’t nearly as bad. I do know folks here who commute 60 miles each way. I personally had jobs here with commutes of 16 miles and 35 miles, though I now have reduced that to 8 miles.

    I concur that the roads in the DC area have insufficient capacity for the traffic. That’s one of the reasons I left having tired of the traffic jams in Reston trying to go to the grocery store on Saturdays. As for the roads in DC not being constructed for bad weather, I guess global warming can’t come soon enough.

  19. djneylon says:

    We get the sun issue here in Detroit. On mornings when the rising sun is particularly bright (i.e., a clear day) in can blind you as you come to the top of ramps or around curves. As to snow driving, a body shop guy here noted on last night’s news that a four wheel drive vehicle drives no better on ice than two-wheel drive — a fact that should be in large bold-face print on the first page of the owner’s manual. I am amazed by how many I see in the ditch during snow/ice.

  20. James Joyner says:

    djneylon: The sun is bright everywhere I’ve lived. In the rest of the country, people just put on sunglasses, flip down the visor, or squint. They otherwise manage to keep on driving.