I-95 Snowstorm Backup a Nightmare but By No Means the First in the Country

Travelers on I-95 were caught up in the storm earlier this week that saw significant snow and ice around the Commonwealth. Conditions resulted in a huge traffic snarl between Richmond and Northern Virginia that left motorists sitting in a 48-mile parking lot for upward of 20 hours in a desolate section with few connecting roads.

That played a big part in why so many spent the cold night in their cars going nowhere. Many wondered how this could happen.

The truth is it happens more often than you may realize, and the reality is government cannot prevent every situation when a perfect storm of events causes unusual circumstances.

I listened Tuesday as Virginia’s I-95 traffic disaster story spread through news reports and social media, and it brought back the memory of another wintry weather event.

In 2014 hundreds of travelers in Georgia encountered similar conditions and spent 18 hours parked on I-75. The reason that particular incident stood out to me was because Chick-fil-a employees and others distributed free food to trapped motorists. The difference was the miles of shutdown on I-75 were in the metro Atlanta area as opposed to the isolated stretch of I-95 in Virginia.

Questions then; questions now. “How could a light snowfall in Georgia shut down its capital’s traffic, creating ‘unspeakably horrible’ gridlock that lasted as long as 18 hours,” asked Conor Sen in the January 2014 issue of The Atlantic.

But in traffic reports throughout the years there’s been plenty of accounts detailing long traffic backups on interstates due to all kinds of conditions including nature. For example, a winter storm pileup on I-94 in Wisconsin just two weeks ago caused a backup that lasted more than 13 hours; again, due to weather and wrecks.

As is often the case, there is usually finger pointing and blame when, in reality, no matter how prepared governments try to be against any and every situation, it’s impossible to predict Mother Nature. Parking lots on interstates happen in bad instances.

It’s not just winter weather. Hurricanes have wreaked their damage, too. In September 2019, Tropical Depression Imelda stranded drivers on Houston’s I-45. Fog has been a culprit in a number of states. In California smoke from wildfires has blocked vision to the point where traffic came to a standstill resulting in hours spent parked on the interstate and unable to escape.

Wrecks blocking travel are always a possibility; in fact, locals here in the Staunton region joke about avoiding our I-81 and I-64 crossroads if traveling from one side of the area to the other because there are so many vehicle accidents on the interstates. No one has time to sit there in that mess waiting for it to clear if it can be avoided.

Virginia officials have apologized for not being able to do more to help those stuck on I-95. All in all, though, the American interstate system is a fast, effective way to travel especially long distances. As drivers we take our chances with the hope that we won’t get bogged down in some mishap.

Deciding to drive in a full-blown snowstorm? If it all goes sideways, the results could be sitting in a parked car for an indefinite amount of time waiting for rescue and, unfortunately, on Monday that’s exactly what happened.


-CBS: Icy I-95 in Virginia finally reopened after storm left hundreds of drivers stranded

-WaPost: Winter storm delays leave Amtrak passengers stuck on trains: “Several passengers stuck on trains since Monday arrived home Wednesday, some by rental car.” It wasn’t just I-95 that was hit by Monday night’s blizzard conditions.

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