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Woster: There are always a few knuckleheads who try to push through winter storm travel

I wasn’t sure if those head-strong travelers didn’t trust the warnings or if they just felt special and not subject to rules other people followed.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster
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I helped write and distribute bad-weather and road-closure messages when I worked for the state, and those releases nearly always included tips about safe travel.

I’m sure you know most of those tips: stock a winter kit, let someone know your travel route, change plans if necessary, fill your gas tank and carry a charged phone but don’t depend on it to get you out of a jam.

I sometimes wondered if the repetition turned the messages into the sort of white noise you might choose on a sleep machine. I decided including the safety tips was better than not mentioning them. More information is better than less, I figured.

It should not have required a message from, the state, of course. The tips were common sense, good reminders. People on bad roads in bad weather have some responsibility for themselves, though, right? Most people know that, but there always seem to be a few knuckleheads, you know?

I recall this one blizzard during my state years. Transportation and Public Safety officials had closed a long stretch of interstate. The way I remember it, a driver came to a road-closed barrier. He took the off-ramp and wandered around until he came upon what used to be Highway 16. The road looked pretty good, so he headed out. In minutes, the world went white with blowing snow, and the roadway under his vehicle’s tires became a skating rink. He slid into a snow drift that stretched all the way across the road. The only thing the guy did right that day was to carry a charged phone.

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During last week’s blizzard, I saw various reports that told me a surprising number of drivers were like the guy on Old 16. Numerous travelers tried to get around a closed interstate by using secondary highways. Some of them learned that a storm bad enough to close an interstate highway nearly always messes up secondary roads, too.

I wasn’t sure if those head-strong travelers didn’t trust the warnings or if they just felt special and not subject to rules other people followed. I guess a person could admire their self-confidence. Problem is, in my experience, those people get up the road a piece and go cattywampus across both lanes into a drift. That’s when someone else, usually someone with better things to do, must brave the elements on a rescue mission.

In those days, most folks needed no reminder that nature always wins when it decides to get serious.

I remember one blizzard, back in 2010, I think it was. It was a vicious but quick storm. Interstates closed one day and gradually re-opened the next. A westbound bus carrying a sports team of some kind encountered a closure at Vivian. GPS apparently showed the old highway just to the north. Why not try that? Of course, that road was no better than the interstate. The bus slid into a massive drift and the occupants had to be rescued. Who could have seen that coming except anyone who had ever witnessed a prairie blizzard.

The state Transportation Department goes to great lengths to provide public information about road conditions. The 511 system is regularly updated and can be accessed on just about any electronic device. The site includes views from cameras placed at various spots on highways across South Dakota.

The cameras are great, but occasionally people misinterpret what they are seeing. They see a shot of a clear stretch of road 50 miles away and wonder why the interstate isn’t open where they are. “I’ll just sneak around the gate,’’ they are tempted to think. Bad idea.

One unusual time of road closures happened in 2013, during a blizzard the first week of October. In Brookings, people celebrated Hobo Day in decent weather. In Pierre, a skiff of snow danced along the sidewalks. In Murdo, drivers chafed at the Interstate Closed barrier. Not much farther west, travelers were stranded on highways, schools were closed and power was out throughout the Black Hills. Cattle died by the thousands on the plains in that storm.

In my time with public safety, I learned that when a road is closed, there is a reason. When a safe travel message is sent, there is a reason, too. Thankfully, most people pay attention.

Related Topics: TERRY WOSTERCOMMENTARY
Opinion by Terry Woster
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