Lessons from the sudden, fatal dust storm that caused a 72-vehicle pileup on 1-55
On May 1, seven people died, and 37 others were injured in a crash of 72 vehicles on Interstate 55 in Illinois. A sudden dust storm led to zero-visibility conditions on the roadway.
“We had a unique combination of conditions,” said Ed Shimon, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in central Illinois. “We had below-normal precipitation in April that caused the surface soils to be abnormally dry. As we headed into the period where farmers work over the field, get them tilled and prepared for planting, followed by an extremely windy day … that caused that dust to be picked up.”
Between 2007 and 2017, there were 272 fatalities attributed to dust storms in the U.S., according to a study published in March by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. Researchers combined dust fatality data from the NOAA Storm Events Database and the Department of Transportation’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System.
Study co-author Daniel Tong of George Mason University said the results were eye-opening.
“The number of deaths was 20 times more than we previously knew,” noted Tong, an associate professor of atmospheric science.
Dust storms are so dangerous, he said, because they come from “almost nowhere.” Compared to those living in the Southwest, people in the Midwest are not as aware of the weather phenomenon.
“First, the visibility is a problem. Second is, people panic. [They’re] disoriented and make mistakes,” he said. “Third — which is more subtle — the dust storm will bring fine particles, and the soil is going to be deposited on the surface of the road. It will change the traction of the road surface, so you will need a longer distance in order to brake.”
For those caught on the road in a dust storm, Tong advised not to panic and to remain aware of your surroundings as best you can.
“You have to pull off from the paved traction of the road. You just sit on the side,” he advised, adding that it’s best to resist the urge to put on your blinkers.
“We all do that. You try to follow the taillights of the cars in front of you, right?” he said. “You don't want to do that in a dust storm, [however,] because you will attract followers, and they can hit you from behind.”
As the Illinois State Police conduct a formal investigation into the circumstances that led to more than 70 vehicles crashing on I-55 in May, Shimon, the Illinois meteorologist, considers ways the National Weather Service can better predict when and where dust storms will occur. Of the tools they utilize, Shimon said satellites may be the most helpful.
“The different colorizations of satellite images give us a clue that dust is getting picked up and maybe affecting visibility of certain areas, so we don't have to wait for, you know, an [Illinois Department of Transportation] message to come out that a roadway has been impacted by the dust,” Shimon said. “We can get ahead of that with satellite images and make sure that messaging can go out quicker — that conditions are developing and could become severe over a certain amount of time.”
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