Wednesday, January 6, 2021

It’s a team effort to help keep Snoqualmie Pass open this winter

By Meagan Lott

We're fresh into 2021 and we are already seeing heavy snowfall across our mountain passes. Mother Nature greeted us harshly the first weekend of the year, hammering I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass with almost 3 feet of new snow. We saw the heaviest snowfall on Saturday, when dozens of vehicles spun out and blocked lanes, leading to a 7-hour closure. 

We hear it every year. Why does it take so long to reopen Snoqualmie Pass after a closure? Well, let's break it down.

Crashes, spinouts cause most closures

First, the majority of closures of the pass are not due strictly to weather. Our snow plows work hard to keep the roads as clear as possible – no easy task in storms like we see on Snoqualmie. Most closures are because of spin outs and crashes blocking the road. And most of those? Because drivers are unprepared and/or don't follow the traction requirements. 

Heavy snowfall the first weekend of 2021 created difficult traveling conditions.
Several spinouts lead to a full closure of Snoqualmie Pass for seven hours.

We display traction requirements on our electronic highway Variable Message Signs leading up to the pass in both directions to alert drivers of what lies ahead. We also list these conditions on our mountain passes webpage, our mobile app under Snoqualmie Pass and on our Highway Advisory Radio 1610 AM or 530 AM. 

We need everyone to follow traction requirements

We see all kinds of vehicles struggle going over the pass, from smaller passenger cars up to semi-trucks. We also see the full range of vehicles ignore the traction requirements.

It only takes one driver ignoring the traction requirements to create a domino effect of spun-out vehicles blocking an entire stretch of I-90, prompting a closure to get things cleared out of the way.

Many vehicles including semi-trucks spin out trying to climb the hill up to the summit of
 Snoqualmie Pass on I-90 after failing to follow the chain requirements.
We partner with the Washington State Patrol to station troopers along I-90 during a major storm event to ensure vehicles are abiding by the traction requirements. Troopers will issue citations of up to $500 for those vehicles not abiding by the requirements. We don't set up checkpoints because with 20,000 vehicles traveling across the pass every day it would create more backups, congestion and potentially lead to rear-end collisions and longer delays.

But, troopers can't stop everyone. That's why we need drivers to take responsibility to chain up, slow down and do their part to keep themselves and everyone else safe, and the pass open.

It takes time to get tow trucks and responders into narrow passes

When the highway closes for a crash or spinout, our focus turns from plowing snow – our crews are scheduled 24/7 to treat highways this time of year – to helping the WSP and emergency services get to the scene.

While conditions may look bare and wet, drivers still need to take it slow due to slush which can pull your vehicle in a direction you don’t want to go, as this driver found out.
Remember, while well-traveled, Snoqualmie Pass is a remote area with limited services, which means there are only a small number of tow-truck companies, and they are often busy clearing other wrecks during a storm. The tight conditions along passes also means it can take tow trucks longer to maneuver into position, which also adds to clearing times.

Investigating crashes, clearing roadways takes time

While clearing any crash can be a challenge, the bigger the vehicle, the harder it is, especially, for example, if a semi-truck needs to be uprighted. 

If any cargo or gear has spilled onto the highway, it needs to be recovered. If a vehicle is leaking fuel or other chemicals, the Department of Ecology is called in to clean up.  Finally, WSP needs time to investigate the collision scene before our crews can finally start removing any snow that's accumulated in the area during the closure.  

All of this work and coordination can take hours. Remember, all of those workers involved in cleaning up the crash have to first get through all of the traffic and weather to get to the scene.
Semi-truck spins out: It only takes one or two vehicles spinning out to
close Snoqualmie Pass for an extended time.
Our goal every winter is to keep Snoqualmie Pass open. Our maintenance crews work around the clock treating and clearing a 70-mile stretch of I-90 from North Bend to Ellensburg. They are constantly checking weather forecasts in order to move equipment, materials and personnel where they are needed the most. It takes time to complete this work, especially if the storm continues to produce low temperatures, ice, freezing rain and snow. No one can guarantee ice- and snow-free roadways. 

So, this is how you can help us this winter: 
  • Carry chains and know how to install them. All vehicles – yes, even all-wheel drive and 4-wheel drive – are required to carry chains or an approved alternative. When chains are required, it is vital that drivers chain up – that's how we keep the pass open to traffic instead of having more closures. Learning how to put chains on in the middle of a storm is never ideal. Practice at home beforehand.
  • Have good tires. All-weather or snow tires are incredibly important to have this time of year, especially if you're traveling through a mountain pass. While 4WD and AWD don't require chains during most "chains required notices" they DO need to have appropriate traction tires.
  • Stay informed. It's even more important to check weather and conditions before you leave and during travel – never check from behind the wheel. Use our travel alerts and many tools and social media accounts and the 511 phone system to keep informed of conditions and any possible closures or alerts. Our app also has all the info you will need to stay in the know.
  • Be prepared for delays and closures, including having extra masks and hand sanitizer. As this past weekend showed, closures can come with little warning and be in place for quite awhile. Be prepared for unexpected delays and possibly needing to make unplanned stops or getting assistance such as towing. You'll want to be sure to stay safe in these interactions.
  • Expect less than ideal conditions.  Drive assuming snow and ice conditions. Even when it appears wet, it might be black ice or slush. Reduce speeds and leave more space between vehicles.
  • Consider altering travel plans during heavy storms. If you're unsure about your winter driving ability or your vehicle's equipment, there's no shame in delaying or altering your travel plans.
Keeping Snoqualmie Pass open is really a team effort between our maintenance crews working around the clock to keep traffic moving and drivers being prepared and taking it slow in the ice and snow. Let's all work together this winter to keep traffic moving.


Unknown said...

Thank you for the hard work you do!

Unknown said...

now if only people would take the time to read those signs. OR those with front wheel drive realize it's not the same as all wheel drive *sigh*. thank you from this Snoqualmie Pass resdent!!

Unknown said...

If only people like "Unknown" above realized that cars with All Wheel drive still break with the same number of wheels as Front Wheel Drive, and still turn with the same number of tires as Front Wheel drive. AWD does not help as much as you think it does.

Unknown said...

I literally saw someone driving their lil Saturn SL2 or SL1 Wednesday morning when it was ALL VEHICLES CHAINS REQUIRED (except AWD) going up Westbound (I'm driving my Semi, chained up of course) I get over the top and see they had slid out and lost control, reversing to continue down... I'm on the right, they get into the left where all the snow and slush is and I'm going 25 down the hill, they start to fishtail so I slow down even more (They were going 20 so I was catching up... Decided not to pass obviously in case they lost control and ended up in m cab or under my trailer!) Please people chain up if necessary... It's not worth you losing complete control and me seriously injuring you or worse just to be inconvenienced by 30 minutes or even an hour. It's much easier to put chains/cables on a car!

JP Maxwell said...

Yep, just what you need to be prepared to cross Snoqualmie Pass in the winter. More masks and hand sanitizer. Really? Those are necessary? Seriously. I don't think so. I'd suggest food, water and blankets. That makes much more sense.

Unknown said...

Thank you DOT for doing the best you can to keep the roads safe. I have a 4WD, always carry chains, a 20deg sleeping bag, food, water, and a brain. Called my son the other day to let him know I was going over 2 and called him when I arrived on the other side (given the avalanche warnings). I want to ski and enjoy life for many many more years!

WSDOT said...


Thank You!

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