Why Driving in Today's Snowstorm May Be Riskier Than After Blizzard

A photo from our March 14 slideshow "Snow Hits the Front Range, Late but as Heavy as Predicted."
A photo from our March 14 slideshow "Snow Hits the Front Range, Late but as Heavy as Predicted."
Photo by Evan Semón
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The latest snowstorm to hit the Denver area is a yawn compared to the one that hammered the region last weekend — and that's exactly what could make it unexpectedly dangerous.

We understand if this conclusion seems counterintuitive. After all, the previous blizzard, which wreaked most of its havoc on March 14, dropped more than 27 inches of snow over much of the region, while one current measure of the latest system totals 3.6 inches. But what longtime Denver residents know (and many recent arrivals don't) is that modest storms can bring even more accident risks than the giant ones.

Here are five reasons why:

1. Believe the hype

Weather forecasters saw the mid-March blizzard coming a week in advance, and as a result, officials and the mainstream media switched on the panic machine. News agencies floated the possibility of snowfall amounts greater than any seen since the 1800s (really) and local and state governments attempted to outdo each other in touting their readiness for an unprecedented snowpocalypse, as exemplified by a Governor Jared Polis press conference announcing that he would be activating the National Guard.

These efforts prompted plenty of cynical Twitter comments when the storm, which initially seemed likely to strike late on Thursday, March 11, didn't actually make a significant impact until the afternoon of Saturday, March 13, and really hit the next day. But as a result of all the warnings, many metro area residents stayed off the roads, and most of those who ventured out were ready for dodgy conditions.

In contrast, the latest storm received little advance notice — so little, in fact, that many drivers may have been unaware that another substantial dump was on the horizon. That translates to more commuters not ready for the conditions.

2. Disaster distraction

Officials had another reason not to make a big deal about the latest snowstorm: They were busy dealing with an unexpected traffic nightmare, a fuel spill on Interstate 25 near Loveland that closed the highway for more than 36 hours over the weekend, crippling the ability of travelers to move from Denver to the Wyoming border and vice versa — and it took until late in the afternoon on Sunday, March 21, for the route to reopen in both directions. Understandably, the Colorado Department of Transportation put the lion's share of its focus on this situation, not issuing fresh warnings about the snow to come.

3. Speed kills

There was so much snow last time around that most motorists couldn't drive too fast for the conditions. That won't be the case this time around. The warm pavement means major highways will be covered in a slushy mix that's the opposite of ideal when it comes to maneuverability. Count on lots of people putting the gas pedal to the metal at the precise moment that their right foot should be hovering over the brake.

4. Ice, ice baby

After most spring snowstorms in the Denver area, warmups cause the remaining snow to melt quickly. But given the volume that landed on the area during the blizzard, a lot of it has lingered, resulting in wet roadways that ice up overnight, particularly on bridges and ramps. The aforementioned slush will make it even harder to tell where such slick spots are hiding — until vehicles start spinning, that is.

5. SUV nation

All of these factors become even more problematic when another ingredient is added: overconfident drivers in giant rides who think the laws of man and physics don't apply to them. Expect plenty of dipshits to be zooming in and out of lanes today, drenching smaller cars with muck if they're lucky, and winding up on their roof with their wheels spinning ineffectually if they're not.

For that reason, all drivers — and particularly recent transplants who may not be used to commuting in weather — need to be even more careful than they were after the latest storm of the century.

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