Even for experienced drivers, snow can be a challenge on the road. The impact on visibility, traction, and braking makes accidents more likely, including the potential for massive highway pileups. Snow squalls–a relatively new meteorological term for sudden, severe snowstorms–are one of the biggest dangers for driving in winter.
What Is a Snow Squall?
Whiteout conditions caused by a snow squall present the most dangerous driving environment. The sudden, heavy snow and high winds of a squall are similar to a sandstorm in the desert, completely blotting out the world around you.
If you live near a large body of water, you might experience lake-effect snow squalls. In this type of weather event, strong winds move over a lake or other large body of water and create intense snowstorms as the moisture in the air freezes.
This type of snow squall is most often seen in the Great Lakes area, but it’s possible over any large body of water. Last year, a snow squall blew in across the New York Harbor, completely covering the city in a thin layer of snow in just a few hours.
The other type of snow squall is caused by a powerful cold front. It does not last as long as the type caused by a lake effect and may only cover a limited area. However, they often form in bands across a region, so you may find yourself moving in and out of whiteout conditions as you drive.
What to Do if You Get Caught in a Snow Squall
The high winds, low visibility, and suddenly slippery roads frequently cause accidents. Although the total accumulation during a snow squall is relatively low, the combination of hazards makes them particularly dangerous. The National Weather Service now issues warnings and watches for snow squalls, similar to those for tornadoes or flash floods.
If you can possibly avoid driving when a snow squall is likely, that is your safest option. Pileups on highways–with dozens of vehicles–are common during the whiteout of a snow squall as drivers literally cannot see the car in front of them.
If you do need to travel, the National Weather Service recommends reducing your speed, turning on your lights, and increasing your following distance. Some experts also recommend activating your hazard lights; however, others warn that only stopped motorists should use them.
Avoid slamming on the brakes, as the roads may be dangerously slippery and cause you to lose control of your vehicle. It’s also not a good idea to pull over on the side of the road. You won’t be able to see if it’s safe, for one thing. For another, other cars won’t be able to see you.
Stay in your lane, don’t panic, and drive slowly. Although intense, snow squalls pass quickly.