Motorists encouraged to watch out for black ice, freezing rain

In wake of Thursday’s fatal accident on Interstate 86, weather experts say freezing rain and black ice can produce the perfect storm for hazardous driving conditions.

“You have to know your surroundings,” said Jim Mitchell, meteorologist for the National Weather Service, Buffalo office. “If you notice a lot of melting snow one day then freezing temperatures the next, you should expect some slippery driving conditions.”

Mitchell said icy roadways from freezing rain can be just as dangerous as black ice, a phenomenon caused by the melting and sudden freezing of surrounding snowpack on a road surface. Either can produce hazardous driving conditions in a flash.

“Any time you get above freezing during the day you will get some snow melt,” Mitchell said. “When you go back below (freezing) everything cools down and you get a lot of ice.”

In addition to Thursday’s accident, freezing rain caused numerous incidents on the Southern Tier Expressway in Cattaraugus County last week – including one that shut down the roadway for almost an hour. Ice was reported on the interstate from the Carlton to Allegany exits, a dispatcher for the Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s Office reported.

Mixing wintry conditions and high rates of speed on any thoroughfare can lead to multiple fender benders or worse. In December 2011, two motorists were charged for unsafe driving following a multiple-car accident on I-86 in the town of Poland. Police say speed and black ice contributed to the accident.

A garbage truck in March overturned on a I-86 on-ramp in the town of Ellery during a period of freezing rain. Police say speed was a factor in the crash, which sent the driver to the hospital.

In Butler, Pa., two young brothers were killed Jan. 10 when their mother lost control of her car in a 14-vehicle accident, the Associated Press reported. The accident was blamed on freezing rain that blanketed most of Western Pennsylvania during a two-hour period.

As for freezing rain, Mitchell said the ground can remain cold enough for rain to ice over, despite air temperatures above freezing. Dense fog on elevated roadways also have the potential to create unsafe driving conditions.

“You may not think anything is there, so you also have to be aware of where you are,” Mitchell said.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, approximately 24 percent of weather-related vehicle crashes occur on snowy, slushy or ice-covered pavement. Those crashes have resulted in 1,300 deaths and 116,800 injuries nationwide.

Furthermore, nearly 900 people are killed annually and 76,000 are injured in crashes during snowfall or sleet.

“The best thing to do is simply drive carefully,” said Chautauqua County Sheriff Joe Gerace. “People simply need to be aware of what is going on and what conditions the roads are in.”