Snow squall turned deadly for motorists: Here's what you should do

Naomi Creason
The Sentinel (TNS)

Meteorologists like ABC 27's Brett Thackara knew it was coming — and issued warnings.

And yet this week's snow squall still blindsided motorists, leading to a deadly pileup on Interstate 81.

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In all, the  pileup in Schuylkill County  involved 80 vehicles and left six motorists dead and another 24 injured, according to state police.

In addition to a snow squall warning system that was established in 2018 and adapted to target cellphone users in affected geographic areas, Thackara said weather teams have been able to predict when snow squalls are likely to happen. In theory, that should help drivers determine when to be on the road, but it doesn't necessarily work out that way.

"When we're expecting a big snowstorm, most people stay off the roads and schools are closed," Thackara said. "People don't think that with snow squalls. ... They're still going about their business, and then the weather changes on a dime."

It's something Thackara said he'd like to see changed, with drivers taking note of the early forecast, changing their plans if they can or being vigilant on the roads if they can't.

For those who take to the road, Thackara said there are some signs that a driver is about to hit a snow squall.

"It may seem like a dark cloud coming your way, like a thunderstorm," he said. "If you see that, pull over to the side of the road or a rest stop and wait it out — it's only going to be about 20 to 25 minutes. It may spare you some harm and even your life."

Snow squalls

Snow squalls tend to be rare because of the conditions that are needed to create them.

"Snow squalls typically happen when there are significant winds coming off the Great Lakes," Thackara said, adding that those windy conditions pick up moisture from the lakes and push it across Pennsylvania.

"[On Monday], most of the state was affected because the winds were so strong," he said. "It's a blizzardlike storm for 15 to 20 minutes."

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Thackara estimated that the state sees a really dangerous snow squall about once or twice a year. Monday happened to have those ripe conditions, and Thackara said the below-freezing temperatures made things worse.

Though Monday's fatal pileup on I-81 was attributed to a snow squall, Thackara said it's possible a snow squall could have resulted in the 73-vehicle pileup on Route 581 in Lower Allen Township earlier this month. While there was a front bringing in a snowstorm that Saturday, streamers of wind and snow indicative of a snow squall followed that front, he said.

Driving tips

Both pile-up cases took place on a highway on which drivers had few options about where their vehicles were headed. Like Thackara, PennDOT recommends that drivers simply avoid or delay unnecessary travel during snow squalls and winter storms. It said that with falling temperatures and the winter precipitation, snow squalls and drifting snow can cause icy areas on roads, including overpasses and bridges.

Dane Groszek, Middletown N.Y., makes his way off of Interstate 81 after his car was totaled in a multi-vehicle crash along Interstate 81 North near the Minersville exit, Foster Twp., Pa., on Monday, March 28, 2022. Dane was on his way back home after visiting family in Daytona Fl. (David McKeown/Republican-Herald via AP)

Though avoiding travel is the main precaution, PennDOT did provide some tips for those who encounter snow squalls.

PennDOT said drivers should slow down, stay in their lane, increase the following distance from the car ahead and turn on the headlights and hazard lights in a snow squall. Drivers should not come to a complete stop in the lane itself, since this could cause a chain-reaction crash. Instead, PennDOT recommends that drivers find a place to safely pull off the road and then come to a stop.

During a snow squall, PennDOT also recommends that drivers not pass any vehicles that are moving slowly, nor should they speed up to get away from a vehicle that is following too closely.

PennDOT also generally recommends that drivers stay alert, not drive distracted and wear seat belts.

For those who aren't able to avoid snow squalls and end up in a crash, PennDOT's safety press officer said drivers should remain in the car with their seat belts on, given the chain-reaction danger of more cars potentially becoming involved.

— York Dispatch staff contributed to this report.

Firefighters work at the scene of a multi-vehicle crash on Interstate 81 North near the Minersville exit in Foster Township, Pa., Monday, March 28, 2022. (David McKeown/Republican-Herald via AP)