Plowed snow sends drivers flying off expressways, Sun-Times investigation finds
One day last winter, Kevin Ramos flew off I-355 and survived the 22-foot fall onto busy Lake Street. Other drivers have been killed in these rare but terrifying ‘snow ramp’ vaulting accidents around Chicago and elsewhere.
It was that he might kill someone when his sport-utility vehicle hit the ground far below on busy Lake Street in DuPage County.
“I remember my face and my hands on the steering wheel, kind of like hoping there was nobody there,” says Ramos, 26, a contractor from Glendale Heights.
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He’d barely noticed the pile of plowed snow packed against the side of northbound Interstate 355 that he’d slid into. That unexpected hazard propelled him and his SUV into the air much as a ramp helps a snowboarder take flight.
All things considered, Ramos was lucky. He survived the 22-foot drop. He wasn’t badly injured. And his hard landing didn’t kill anybody else.
Others weren’t as fortunate that same snowy month.
At least four other vehicles similarly rode up snow banks and vaulted over protective barriers on expressways in Chicago and Milwaukee during a two-week period last February. One of the crashes — on the Stevenson Expressway on the Southwest Side — killed a 27-year-old man and 22-year-old woman.
No government agency keeps count of these rare but terrifying crashes. The Chicago Sun-Times has documented 51 such “snow-ramp” accidents since 1994, including one last year in Portland, Oregon, in which a 57-year-old man was sent flying off a bridge during a snowstorm and plunged to his death in the Columbia River. Two happened earlier this year along the same stretch of Interstate 90 in Cleveland.
In the last weeks of 2000 in Chicago, nine vehicles vaulted onto Chicago Transit Authority tracks after riding up roadside snow that had been plowed up against the sides of expressways.
Some years are worse than others. These crashes tend to occur in clusters during particularly snowy winters in which crews are repeatedly plowing, a Sun-Times review of crash reports, lawsuits, government documents and news stories shows.
Often, the crashes involving vehicles flying off the snowy side of an elevated highway were considered “freak accidents.”
Though they are hardly everyday occurrences, highway safety experts say they’re also largely preventable.
A buildup of plowed snow at the side of an expressway isn’t something most drivers would consider a danger. Most people figure the concrete barriers along the side of the highway will keep them on the roadway if they lose control, says Lawrence M. Levine, an engineer from upstate New York who has testified as an expert on snow and ice in numerous court cases.
But that’s not the case, he says.
“If you pile snow against it, you literally defeat the safety device,” Levine says. “You go right over it.”
A SCARY DAY ON I-355
Ramos flew off I-355 the morning of Feb. 16, 2021. He was northbound in the left lane. It had snowed, but he says the roadway — which is maintained through that stretch by the Illinois Department of Transportation — appeared plowed and salted, with “half an inch to an inch” of snow on the left shoulder encroaching into his lane. He says he wasn’t going fast because he was driving on a spare tire on his way to pick up a new tire. His other tires were all snow tires.
Just south of the Lake Street overpass, Ramos says he hit an icy patch hidden by snow. His Jeep fishtailed. He over-corrected and spun out.
The spinning vehicle veered right across three lanes, skidding perpendicular to the 34½-inch-high concrete barrier that’s supposed to prevent vehicles from going off the edge.
But plowed snow, packed against the barrier, acted like a ramp that Ramos says reached almost to the top of the barrier. The SUV rode right up and over.
“The moment my car went up, it happened in such slow motion that I was still in disbelief almost that it was going to go over,” he says.
He braced himself. Then, a sickening thought flashed through his mind: I might land on someone.
It was a 22-foot drop.
The back passenger side of his Jeep hit the ground first, right on Lake Street. Then, the vehicle plunged forward, somehow landing wheels-down only feet from oncoming drivers who slammed on their brakes. Miraculously, they didn’t hit him. And he didn’t hit any other cars.
Ramos suffered only two broken ribs, spending one night in a hospital.
He says the experience reaffirmed his faith in God: “It’s a blessing, really.”
DEADLY CRASH DAYS EARLIER
Vaulting accidents can be horrific because they often occur on elevated highway ramps, overpasses or bridges, high above the ground — exposed stretches of roadway that freeze faster than other pavement.
Survivors say they never sensed the danger because the pavement seemed clear, snow wasn’t falling, and they assumed that the barrier walls might jar them but would keep them on the roadway.
On Feb 12, 2021, four days before Kevin Ramos flew off I-355, two people were killed in a crash along the Stevenson Expressway in which packed, piled snow was a factor.
A 2013 Hyundai Veloster carrying two men and two women, all in their 20s, was northbound between Damen and Ashland avenues around 4 a.m. The driver lost control, “striking the plowed snow and the right concrete barrier wall” according to the initial police report.
The car vaulted off the right side of the highway, crashing into electric wires and a light pole before plummeting 43 feet to a grassy area near Robinson Street, where it broke in two.
The driver, Bulmaro Gomez, 27, described on a GoFundMe page for his funeral as “extremely friendly” and “always happy,” and his front-seat passenger Griselda Zavala, 22, were killed. Two friends riding in the back seat survived.
A toxicology test found the driver’s blood-alcohol level was more than twice the standard at which you’re presumed to be driving drunk in Illinois. And he’d been driving at “high rate of speed,” according to an Illinois State Police crash reconstruction report. But the report also said, “The Hyundai continued forward over the wall due to the pileup of snow on the right shoulder.”
SIMILARITIES AMONG CRASHES
Police photos show a wedge of dirty snow packed against the concrete barrier there. As with similar crashes, the accident came after days of heavy snow and freezing temperatures during which there had been repeated plowing.
An IDOT “snow and ice control” route condition report filed the day after the crash noted the travel lanes and shoulders near Damen needed better attention, with the word “shoulders” underlined.
On Jan. 31, Zavala’s family filed a lawsuit in the Illinois Court of Claims — the venue for making claims against state agencies — accusing IDOT of having failed to remove a known hazard or, at least, to have warned drivers of the danger. The family is seeking $2.2 million in damages — the maximum allowed.
Under Illinois law, a “comparative fault” standard is used to decide such cases. Even if a driver was impaired, the court also must consider other factors, including whether a government agency ignored known hazards.
The fatal crash last February wasn’t the first time a vehicle rode up a plowed snow bank on the Stevenson and flew off.
During the epic winter of 1978-79, nine vehicles went flying off the expressway, Interstate 55, and at least one person died, according to an Illinois Court of Claims decision in 1990 in favor of a carload of people. They had tumbled 60 feet off the highway — also between Damen and Ashland avenues, where there were shorter barriers then — and survived despite extensive injuries.
That vehicle was the ninth to go over the barrier wall within a few weeks, the decision noted.
The judge wrote that the state “has a duty to keep the highways reasonably safe” and at least could have warned drivers of the danger — a hazard created by the state’s plowing.
“The plowing of snow ultimately resulted in an extremely hazardous ice ramp condition,” the judge wrote.
“Here we are, decades later,” says Larry Rogers Jr., the Zavala family’s lawyer. “They’ve had notice of the problem for decades. And they’re not doing anything to address it.”
The state could warn drivers with signage “or just plow it to an area where you don’t have this type of a hazard,” Rogers says. “They need to figure that out.”
IDOT’s guidelines call for snow removal to “continue until snow is removed from bridge decks and adjacent to walls or guardrail where ramping may occur.”
‘STILL HARD TO BELIEVE’
But with more than 200 miles of expressways to maintain in Chicago and the suburbs, the agency has discretion about how to address snow that’s accumulated against barriers. State officials say they prioritize clearing traffic lanes.
In urban areas like Chicago, there might be little space to put plowed snow, IDOT says.
Earlier this month, the Zavala family and friends spent the anniversary of the crash remembering Griselda, a “loving, giving and helpful” young woman who was eager to help her sister and mother with makeup tips and had been looking forward to beginning cosmetology school last March.
They went to Resurrection Cemetery, where she is buried, to release balloons bearing messages about how much they miss her.
“When they called us and told us that she was on the Stevenson Expressway and that she landed under it, we were just, like: How? How does that happen?” her sister Iliana Zavala says. “You know, we didn’t understand. We couldn’t wrap our minds around it.
“This is a pain that you don’t want, not even your worst enemy to endure. Because, you know, it sucks. It’s painful. Even after a year, it’s still hard to believe what happened.
“Sometimes, we question if the car wouldn’t have, you know, flipped and, you know, gotten off [the highway], would she have survived?”
CTA TO IDOT: STOP CREATING HAZARDS
Just after the I-55 and I-355 crashes, a Chicago-area driver rode up and over a snow ramp along the Eisenhower Expressway.
Within the same, snowy two-week period, two other drivers flew off high expressway ramps in Milwaukee.
A 59-year-old woman was driving east on the Eisenhower around 10 a.m. Feb. 17, 2021, when someone sideswiped her Honda Pilot SUV near Harlem Avenue just west of the Chicago city limits. That propelled her car up and over snow that was piled against the concrete barrier, according to the crash report. She landed next to CTA’s Blue Line tracks.
An email that day to IDOT from Jeffrey Hulbert, the CTA’s vice president of safety, cited an “urgent need for swift action” and pleaded for state crews to remove the “launch ramp” that caused the woman’s car to fly over the barrier.
Hulbert wrote that the issue previously came up at a meeting between IDOT and CTA leaders and asked “that IDOT (1) refrain from plowing snow in a manner that creates this hazard and (2) takes action to remove the snow on the shoulders currently creating this hazard ASAP.”
A CTA spokesman says the snow was then removed “pretty quickly.”
An April 2001 memo included in IDOT’s manual for snow crews specifically mentions snow-ramping issues near CTA L lines. It says managers might consider clearing ramped, packed snow “adjacent to electrified rail lines” on heavily traveled highways when temperatures are 20 degrees or colder.
That memo was sent months after a cluster of accidents along CTA property in 2000, including two fatal crashes on the Dan Ryan Expressway.
MILWAUKEE SURVIVOR’S TALE
Crash survivor Richard Oliver, 35, a suburban Milwaukee resident, says he understands snow removal can be difficult. But Oliver says more needs to be done to protect dangerous ramps, overpasses and bridges, which can appear deceptively safe if the pavement seems clear.
Video of Oliver’s 70-foot plunge from the Milwaukee Zoo Interchange at Interstate 94 and Interstate 41 the morning of Feb. 6, 2021, went viral after a Wisconsin Department of Transportation camera captured the moment the Ford F-250 pickup he was driving flew up a snow bank and off the elevated highway.
Oliver was headed to his mom’s place that morning. He says he doesn’t remember driving fast, though he later pleaded no contest to driving at an “unreasonable and imprudent speed” on a revoked license and failing to keep his vehicle under control.
“I remember going onto the bridge, and the truck was just kind of starting to go off the side, and it just, the front tire got caught in the snow, and it just kept going,” he says. “Anything after that, I honestly don’t remember at all. I remember waking up at the bottom.”
Amazingly, Oliver landed wheels-down and didn’t hit any other cars.
Hospitalized for nine days with a broken back and leg, he needed first a wheelchair and then a walker. The former construction worker says he still feels pain and anticipates having more surgeries. But he knows he’s lucky to be alive.
“You go from 100% normal, or what I knew was normal, and then, all of a sudden, that’s gone,” Oliver says. “I don’t know how I got to be so lucky, but I am. I am super, super lucky.”
Eight days after Oliver’s plunge, a 26-year-old woman driving a Hyundai Elantra flew off another elevated ramp at I-43 and I-94 in downtown Milwaukee after leaving a bar late at night. She was injured but survived.
Oliver says the concrete barriers at the side of the highway would have kept the vehicles in both cases from falling off if not for the hardened snow packed against them.
“If they would have removed the snow,” he says, “it would have not happened.”
IDOT: BE CAREFUL, SLOW DOWN
Ahead of major storms, IDOT warns people: Stay off the roads unless it’s absolutely necessary to be out.
Even after the snow stops falling, the agency says drivers need to be extra careful.
“Even if it’s not an active snow, there’s definitely going to be areas that are out there that are more slick, places that tend to freeze up,” IDOT spokeswoman Maria Casteneda says.
Stephen Travia, the director of IDOT’s Office of Highways Project Implementation, says crews respond to snowstorms “to the best ability that we have” but can be hampered during large storms by narrow roadway shoulders in urban areas.
Tighter shoulders mean there’s little room to move snow, and dumping snow off the sides of expressway ramps or bridges isn’t safe for cars or people below.
“With large snow events, it does take a little bit of time to clear the highway,” Travia says. “Any crash is unfortunate, and severe crashes that result in serious injury are even worse. To us, we’re in a ‘drive-to-zero’ mentality. Any life lost is one too many. So, when we get to zero on our highways, we’ll be happy. Until then, we’re not happy.”
Jose Rios, IDOT’s engineer for Chicago and the collar counties, says many variables affect snow removal, including how long the storm’s expected to last, the temperature and the type of snow.
When a storm hits, the first job is clearing traffic lanes so ambulances and other first responders can get through. Then, crews plow other areas such as turns and highway shoulders.
After that, IDOT can conduct “packed snow operations” to remove compressed snow using plows, snow blowers and other equipment. That can be complicated and dangerous work, involving lane closings and exposing crews to perilous conditions.
“The shoulder space in some places can be very small, and, in others, we can have wider areas where we’re able to store that snow,” Rios says. “If we see that there’s accumulation of snow, on, for example, curved barriers or potentially some places like near CTA trains, we can also remove snow.”
Casteneda says some packed-snow operations were done last year “on or after” the date of the third Chicago-area accident but couldn’t provide times or locations.
‘DANGEROUS SNOW PILES’
The concrete barriers edging highways range from 34 to 44 inches high, depending on their age and design.
Such barrier walls often angle slightly where they meet the roadway. Under normal conditions, that angled portion would help guide an errant car’s wheels back onto the road.
But when plowed snow, mixed with salt or de-icing chemicals, is piled against these barriers and temperatures remain below freezing, the plowed snow morphs into hardened snow banks that collect more ice and snow.
That’s what a lawsuit before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals says happened on Dec. 19, 2016, when Christopher Weber, 27, an IT consultant, accidentally drove his pickup truck off Interstate 794’s towering Hoan Bridge along Milwaukee’s lakefront.
The lawsuit, filed by Weber’s parents, says Milwaukee County was negligent in its snow removal, that crews had left plowed snow piled against the concrete wall on the edge of the bridge, creating “artificial and dangerous snow piles” that imperiled even slow-moving drivers.
Weber was heading to work that morning, driving at “a reasonable and prudent speed” when his pickup hit black ice.
His truck fishtailed, then rode the snow bank, went over the edge of the bridge wall and fell 44 feet, killing him.
According to the suit, “His vehicle was fatally launched … because the snow piles built up against the Hoan Bridge’s barrier walls rendered the safety wall ineffective. The snow piles became a ramp, fatally launching Christopher’s vehicle over the barrier wall.”
The lawsuit says that, despite numerous past complaints about ice on the bridge — and a 27-hour break from new snowfall right before the crash, during which a complete cleanup could have taken place — the huge snow pile Weber drove off wasn’t removed until after the crash.
Milwaukee County officials have said crews were in the midst of clearing the snow when the accident happened, and a judge granted the county’s request for summary judgment in its favor, averting a trial. Weber’s family awaits a decision on its appeal.
Most drivers have seen ice warnings on bridges. Levine says people need to understand that elevated highway ramps — built with metal supports surrounded by concrete and sitting high in the air — are prone to fast freezes just like bridges.
And because the curves on elevated highway interchanges are built at a slight angle for safer turning, the snow piles drip moisture onto the road during the day when the sun is shining. Then, when temperatures drop, that water can freeze into black ice, Levine says.
When a skidding car flies off a snow ramp, the banked angle of the roadway can cause the vaulting vehicle to flip in mid-air, making such crashes even more catastrophic.
AN ESPECIALLY BAD MONTH IN CHICAGO
December 2000 was an unrelenting month for snow in Chicago, with 30.9 inches recorded — the third-highest December total since 1885, according to National Weather Service data.
That month, nine vehicles rode up hardened plowed-snow banks along Chicago expressways, landing on CTA property, according to news reports. A 36-year-old man from Country Club Hills and a 32-year-old man from Park Forest were killed in separate accidents just before Christmas on the Dan Ryan.
Days later, on Jan. 1, 2001, an Elmwood Park woman was killed when a drunk driver traveling in the opposite direction on the Northwest Tollway veered up a snow bank, vaulted a median barrier and flew into her car. Relatives who were with her were injured.
Her family sued the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority and was awarded a $910,000 settlement, a rare outcome when these types of crashes occur.
Three more vaulting crashes happened in Chicago that snowy January:
- A North Side woman was killed when her vehicle flew off piled snow at the side of the Dan Ryan and landed on 22nd Street.
- An Arizona man survived after his car fell off the Stevenson onto 31st Street.
- And a West Side woman was critically injured when her SUV vaulted off the Dan Ryan onto the Stevenson.
That same winter in Missouri, two snow-related vaulting accidents happened within 90 minutes on the I-55 bridge over the Meramec River in St. Louis, one of them killing a 13-year-old girl.
A state arbitration panel ordered the Missouri Department of Transportation to pay nearly $624,000 for the girl’s death and her father’s injuries. It found the department was negligent for piling snow against the bridge rails and allowing it to stay there for 13 days, noting that it didn’t use overtime crews to remove snow “for economic reasons,” according to news reports.
Clusters of such accidents have hit other snowy locales going back to the 1990s and early 2000s, including:
- A fatal accident in Syracuse, New York, in January 2004, in which a visiting NASA official lost control of his rented Kia Sportage SUV on a sunny morning on Route 81 across the Park Street overpass. The vehicle rode up and over a snow-covered concrete barrier, landing on the road below.
- That happened 37 hours after another fatal crash 100 yards down the same road in which a man driving a GMC Envoy and pulling a trailer rode up a snow bank and vaulted into a ravine.
- Two back-to-back accidents happened on the same winter evening in Rochester, New York, in January 1999. A woman’s vehicle rode up a plowed snow bank on northbound I-390 on the Genesee Valley Park Overpass and plummeted 50 feet. Two hours later, a man driving in the opposite direction over the same overpass vaulted over a plowed snow bank and fell 40 feet, sustaining serious injuries.
- In January and February 1994, five snow-related vaulting accidents occurred in Rochester, Albany and Syracuse, New York. In one, a woman driving on the Route 81 overpass over Park Street in Syracuse rode up a plowed snow bank, teetered on the edge for a few seconds, then fell 60 feet to the ground and was badly hurt.
‘IT COULD HAPPEN TO ANYBODY ELSE’
Iliana Zavala says she was especially sad to learn of the two similar crashes in the Chicago area right after her sister’s.
“It’s disappointing, it’s scary, it’s frustrating,” she says. “Because it happened to us, and it happened to them. It could happen to anybody else.”
Crash survivor Kevin Ramos says he never realized the danger posed by piles of snow at the side of a plowed expressway.
“I’ve driven to Indiana and Wisconsin a lot when it’s snowing,” he says. “I’ve gone through blizzards. If you saw what I saw, you wouldn’t have thought that there was any way that would have caused that accident.”