Despite stranded motorists, NJ sees fatality-free storm as success
EWING – Some startling roadway statistics from Wednesday’s snowstorm: Nearly 150 trees fell on state and interstate highways. Troopers responded to 715 crashes and helped more than 1,500 motorists, including more than 600 who were stranded.
But despite all that, and the scores of passengers bottled up for hours on impassable portions of interstates 78, 280 and 287, state officials were pleased with the storm response because of one big number: Zero fatalities.
“I know the frustration level may have been high for those motorists stranded out there, and the inconvenience was certainly something that the frustration from that is understood,” said Col. Patrick Callahan, the State Police superintendent. “But from a public safety perspective and goal, we did not have one fatality in the state of New Jersey. … That’s a pretty phenomenal feat.”
“I’m very happy we declared a state of emergency early,” said Gov. Phil Murphy, who took some criticism for not declaring an emergency for the first nor’easter. “That gave us a long runway, and we had no fatalities – as frustrated as people are, rightfully, by the situations they had to live through.”
Murphy urged drivers to remain cautious through the weekend. He said the daytime sunshine will help melt and snow but that that lead to standing meltwater that could refreeze at night.
Acting Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti urged drivers to stay home at night, if possible, and obey speed limits if they must head out.
“Most of what we saw yesterday on the road in spinouts and accidents who people who were going at a rate that I would say was probably somewhat unsafe,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said. “And sadly we probably found them down the road in the shoulder.”
Gutierrez-Scaccetti said the problems on the highway ramps Wednesday night started with the morning rain that preceded the powerful snowstorm. Drivers thought it was safe to head out, but then snow started falling at rates up to 3 inches an hour in the afternoon.
Those on the roads in the afternoon and evening were prone to get slowed by downed trees, power lines or tractor trailers. Officials would then have to try to back people down the highways and ramps, to clear space for a plow to come though, to bring in heavy equipment that can lift a toppled truck or tow a large commercial vehicle.
“None of us like the fact that anybody sat in their car and waited for help,” said Gutierrez-Scaccetti. “We’re just happy they all got to their destination safely.”
Murphy says traffic was probably higher, leading to snarled traffic on highways and ramps, because the storm started later than expected, leading some to be “whipsawed” in the afternoon.
“We had pleaded with people to stay home. The fact that it rained longer in a lot of the state probably lulled some people into thinking that this wasn’t what they thought it was going to be,” Murphy said. “If you were out between 1 and 2 in the afternoon and 8 o’clock, maybe a little later yesterday in the central and northern part of the state, you got whipsawed. You got clobbered.”
Murphy said state officials thought about a truck ban during Wednesday’s snowstorm but ultimately decided against it. Thousands of tractor trailers traveled successfully through the state that day – but six overturned, leading to many of the biggest problems on North Jersey highways.
Murphy said truck bans in New Jersey are rare and cut both ways. Other than a brief ban in 2015, the last was in 1996, he says.
“In some of these cases they’re bringing food and the commerce that we need to keep the state going,” Murphy said.
Pennsylvania banned tandem trucks and empty trailers during Wednesday’s storm. All the ones that toppled in New Jersey were single trailers, according to Gutierrez-Scaccetti.
“It’s not for us to determine what should go where and when. People have expectations, so it’s not an easy thing to do. And it’s certainly not an easy thing to enforce,” she said.