Illinois Department of Transportation needs to address ‘snow ramp’ vaulting accidents

Stephanie Zimmermann and Lauren FitzPatrick’s thorough reporting shines a light on the need for IDOT to at least start discussions on how these accidents can be avoided and whether plowed snow can be placed elsewhere.

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Illinois State Police photos of the scene of a fatal crash on Feb. 12, 2021, that killed two people and injured two others when the vehicle rode up and over a bank of snow plowed against the barrier of the Stevenson Expressway and plunged 43 feet below. Provided by Illinois State Police.

Illinois State Police photos of the scene of a fatal crash on Feb. 12, 2021, that killed two people and injured two others when the vehicle rode up and over a bank of snow plowed against the barrier of the Stevenson Expressway and plunged 43 feet below. Provided by Illinois State Police.

Provided by Illinois State Police

Chicago winters usually mean an onslaught of snow, and snow, along with frigid temperatures, guarantees slippery, icy roads.

So to anyone sitting behind the wheel at the tail end of a blizzard, a plowed expressway, highway ramp, overpass or bridge is a welcome sight.

Motorists may feel a sense of security with the snow piled up on the shoulder. They may believe that if their car does hit an icy patch and swerves into the snowy mounds, they’d be protected by the expressways’ concrete barriers.

But the buildup of snow on the side of highways can end up like a ramp and send drivers vaulting dangerously into the air if they get too close, the Chicago Sun-Times’ Stephanie Zimmermann and Lauren FitzPatrick reported.

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Kevin Ramos was among those drivers. Last winter, his Jeep Grand Cherokee flew off I-355 and fell 22 feet onto Lake Street after he slid into a pile of plowed snow. Ramos survived, but not everyone in similar wrecks has been as lucky. Just days before, Bulmaro Gomez and his front-seat passenger were killed when the Hyundai Veloster Gomez was driving struck plowed snow on the Stevenson Expressway and plummeted 43 feet.

Gomez was driving drunk and speeding, but an Illinois State Police report also indicates the Hyundai went over the expressway “wall due to the pileup of snow on the right shoulder.”

“Snow ramp” vaulting accidents are rare, but they’re also not unique to Illinois. And as Zimmerman and FitzPatrick’s reporting shows, there’s a need to address the problem to save lives and prevent serious injuries wherever possible.

The Illinois Department of Transportation should at least start discussions on how these accidents can be avoided and whether plowed snow can be placed elsewhere.

There are no easy answers. Clearing snow, especially after major storms, is a big challenge for IDOT crews. Space to put plowed snow in a dense city like Chicago is limited. Drivers are are often impatient and reckless, making accidents more likely.

Even so, IDOT can explore options by talking to highway safety experts who say “snow ramp” crashes are largely preventable. Drivers might figure the concrete barriers will keep them on the roadway if they lose control, but that’s not the case. As engineer Lawrence M. Levine put it, “If you pile snow against it, you literally defeat the safety device.”

After decades of these rare but serious crashes — in the winter of 1978-79, nine vehicles went flying off I-55, killing one person — we urge IDOT to take action.

Preventing winter hazards, no matter how few and far between, only makes sense.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com

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