Crash Data Reveals Surprises About Winter Driving

Posted at 5:26 PM, Feb 26, 2013
and last updated 2013-02-26 17:26:20-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — It seems like West Michigan has crammed a whole winter’s worth of weather into the last few weeks, and it’s shown based on how many accidents there have been on the roads.

But why does it seem so many drivers been running into problems lately?  FOX 17 looked at ten years’ worth of data and came up with numerical proof of something many people have found out the hard way.

For Rebekah Karel, the day after Christmas felt like anything but a holiday.

“I came to a stop at the stoplight like this, and the car behind me came flying behind me and boom ran into the, pushed me into the car in front of me,” she said while pulling into to the westbound left-turn lane on 3 Mile Road NW at Alpine Avenue in Walker.

December 26th was the first time this season Grand Rapids picked up more than an inch of snow – and it brought back an annual rite of passage on West Michigan roads.

Karel puts it like this: “Every year, people at the beginning of the winter seem to forget how to drive.”

But after a quiet winter last year, and little snow to start this season, it seemed like the situation was worse than usual.  So FOX 17 gathered the numbers for all snow-related crashes in Kent County from the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning.  That data was then compared with Grand Rapids snowfall for every winter month in the last ten years.

On the surface, the results were exactly what one would expect – the number of crashes goes up in months with more snow.

So we calculated the crash rate for each month – how many crashes for every inch of snow?

And in that data, we discovered what Karel and other drivers have learned firsthand – crash rates are at their highest at the start of the winter in December, drop a bit for January, and fall even more in February.

The difference suggests drivers are 15 percent safer by the end of winter than at the beginning.

It’s something Michigan State Police Lieutenant Chris McIntire has witnessed for more than a decade.

“We’ll have the bad weather, then it will get good for a week or two, and then we have that bad weather again,” McIntire said.  “So, people just forget how to drive in the winter.  I hate to sound so cliche, but people just forget how to drive in the winter.”

But another trend surprised even the seasoned veteran — comparing crash rates to the amount of snowfall by month, it’s actually the months with the least amount of snow that have the highest rate of accidents.  McIntire says it may be an indication drivers don’t take the small events seriously enough.

“I would think so,” he said.  “If you just have a little bit of snow on the ground, people are thinking that it’s just status quo as far as the driving conditions go.”

That’s exactly how Karel remembers the day of her accident.

“It wasn’t even that much snow,” she said.  “It was just that fine sheet of ice on the ground, and no one was prepared.”

She says the experience has changed her mindset when she gets in the driver’s seat.  “Once you’ve been in an accident, then you’re so much more aware of your driving.”

And she hopes others will do the same, no matter what time of the season.

With more snow in the forecast, State Police want you to remember that if you are involved in an accident, stay in your car until help can arrive.