Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 11, 2013

Road conditions a factor in fatal Acme crash


— ACME — It appears no amount of plowing and salting could fully combat the effect abysmally low temperatures and near-constant snow had on road conditions before a fatal two-vehicle crash in Acme Township.

"We're sort of at the mercy of Mother Nature," said Grand Traverse County Road Commission Manager Jim Cook.

A Traverse City man, 36, died Tuesday evening after he lost control of his pickup truck on U.S. 31 North, crossed the centerline and collided with a pumper truck near Five Mile Road. The man was ejected from the truck as it rolled over and authorities pronounced him dead at the scene.

Grand Traverse County sheriff's Lt. Chris Clark said the victim's name won't be released until his next of kin, who are currently outside Michigan, are notified. A Kewadin man, 22, who drove the pumper truck was not injured.

Traffic along U.S. 31 backed up for hours as investigators sifted through wreckage. Clark wouldn't pinpoint weather as a factor.

But Cook said road commission and Michigan Department of Transportation inspectors agreed that poor road conditions from wind, constant snow and the sub-20-degree temperature played a role. He said tire tracks in travel lanes were in "decent condition," but traction significantly diminished in the buildup of snow outside them.

Up to 30 county trucks plow and sand county roads 24 hours a day starting in November, but Cook said the recent stretch of near-single digit temperatures made crews hold the salt.

"There's nothing to be done," he said. "Below 20 degrees we can't use salt."

Cook said salt is less effective in low temperatures, and whatever melting effect it has usually results in refreezing that creates a slick, almost invisible layer of "glare ice" that plays havoc with vehicles' traction.

Motorists may find less traveled roads safer in such conditions. Cook said road crews on Tuesday measured 14-degree surface temperatures on pavement, a "dangerous condition" on heavily traveled thoroughfares, with or without salt.

"In these conditions with that traffic there's enough friction where the cars can create ice," Cook said, suggesting motorists travel alternative routes and always drive cautiously.

Dave Lawrence, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Gaylord, said grumpy Michiganders can blame Canada for the unusually early cold snap. In November, meteorologists watched a massive wall of cold air amass near the Canadian Arctic and waited for it to bring frigid temperatures farther south.

"When the dam opened it flooded the country with cold air," Lawrence said.

Forecasters predict temperatures will stay below 20 degrees Thursday. Lawrence said higher temperatures will be relatively warmer — in the low-20s — into the weekend.