DOT: Don't blame us for black-ice wrecks

Posted February 14, 2014 9:02 a.m. EST
Updated February 14, 2014 6:36 p.m. EST

— Warming afternoon temperatures helped thaw icy roads across central North Carolina on Friday after a treacherous morning commute.

Emergency crews and law enforcement personnel were dispatched to dozens of wrecks between 6 and 9 a.m. as drivers slid, flipped and crashed on slick bridges, exit ramps and highways. No major injuries were reported.

Crews from the eastern part of North Carolina were brought to the area Thursday night to allow Triangle-area crews to get rest after the bulk of the winter storm moved through.

Law enforcement and state Department of Transportation officials made numerous attempts to prevent wrecks by blocking travel lanes on bridges on Interstates 40 and 440. Still, there were multiple crashes.

  • An SUV overturned on N.C. Highway 147 near Swift Creek Avenue around 6 a.m.
  • An hour later, another SUV came to rest on a guardrail along I-440 near Glenwood Avenue.
  • At 8 a.m., an SUV lost control and ended up on its side on Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and Chapel Hill Boulevard in Durham.

State Department of Transportation officials defended the decision to scale back overnight operations, from 50 trucks to five, to give crews needed rest after two long days of clearing snow and ice from Triangle roads.

"I'm not saying that we couldn't have hit a few more spots, but when we went out and sent our guys home (Thursday), the roads were clear. Everything was melted," said Britt McCurry, DOT maintenance engineer for Wake County. "As the temperature dropped overnight, we were able to respond to calls as they came into us."

McCurry said officials felt they were prepared to handle black ice on area roads Friday morning, adding that drivers were warned of the dangers.

"They were advised by the governor as well as DOT to maintain their speed, watching where they're going and what they're doing, and from what I understand, several of them didn't," he said. "I think we did everything we could."

Transportation Secretary Tony Tata agreed, saying there's only so much road crews can do to treat black ice.

"We warned about black ice, and we worked through the night in Wake County. Was there more we could do? Sure, you can always do more," Tata said. "But when you have 100 counties stymied by an event like this, I'm proud of the teams that moved over to help out."

In addition to giving Triangle-based road crews a break Thursday night, DOT officials also gave back-up crews time off.

"No matter how many people we have out there, there still will be black ice in spots. That cannot be helped," McCurry said, adding that hindsight wouldn't change any of his decisions.

"I think we did exactly as we needed to," he said.

Weather was also to blame for a multi-vehicle wreck Thursday night that killed two people on westbound I-40 near U.S. Highway 70. A 21-year-old Kure Beach man was charged with two counts of felony death by motor vehicle Friday in connection with the wreck.

"The events that occurred on I-40 in Wake County were truly a tragedy in every sense of the word," said Col. William Grey, commander of the State Highway Patrol. "Our hearts go out to those people."

Statewide, eight people were killed in incidents related to the winter storm. Two men in Burke County died from heart attacks while shoveling snow, Gov. Pat McCrory said. One person died in Pender County when a ice-laden tree branch fell, and the other five deaths came on North Carolina roads.

Despite the continued problems on the roads due to ice and slush, no major traffic backups were reported because traffic was still relatively light across the area.

Tata said Friday that roads were improving throughout the state, a trend expected to continue this weekend as sunshine and warmer temperatures return.

"Overall, roads are in shape and improving. Interstates are pretty much clear, primary roads are pretty much clear," he said. "We're working on secondary roads today. Still, there is some black ice out there due to re-freezing that happened overnight."

Tata said more than 45,000 tons of salt and sand were spread on the state's roads since Monday. More than 3,000 DOT employees responded to the storm, and more than 1,800 vehicles for snow removal were used almost constantly from Monday through Friday morning.

"A lot of (the salt) has been arriving just like the cavalry, just in the nick of time," he said. "We used a lot two weeks ago, and we put in another order with salt suppliers. It's been arriving. Our division engineers that didn't need as much salt have also been trucking it to the central part of the state."

Area cities warned drivers who abandoned their cars on area roads during the height of the storm Wednesday that they need to retrieve them as soon as possible.

The Durham Police Department issued a statement that any vehicles even partially blocking the road will be towed, with the owners responsible for paying the fees. Anyone who finds that their vehicle has been towed in Durham can call 919-560-4427 to find out where to go to retrieve it.

The Raleigh Police Department set up a special phone line, at 919-996-1220 or 919-996-1221, for people to find their cars. Raleigh police moved vehicles blocking traffic to safe spots nearby, but authorities said the DOT and State Highway Patrol did tow many cars out of potentially dangerous situations.

Despite improving road conditions, officials warned drivers to be cautious as temperatures return to freezing or below during the next several evenings.

"Stay off the roads after dark. Historically, the really bad accidents, the ones that take lives and injure people, happen when people hit black ice and careen off the roads," Grey said. "Now is not the time to let our guards down."