Holiday travelers and early morning commuters were caught by surprise Thursday when light rain turned to ice that was blamed for a rash of minor crashes that halted traffic on Triangle highways.
The National Weather Service warned of hazardous driving in a winter-weather advisory posted at 5:22 a.m. – but that was an hour after Highway Patrol troopers responded to the first of about three dozen accidents on slippery interstates in Wake, Durham and Orange counties. State Department of Transportation maintenance crews were spreading sand and salt on slick spots by 6 a.m., a spokeswoman said.
“I think it caught everybody off guard,” said 1st Sgt. Jeff Gordon, a Highway Patrol spokesman. “I wasn’t even aware we were supposed to have a chance of inclement weather. Those areas that were below the freezing mark, especially the bridges and overpasses, were the first to get hit.”
Many accidents were concentrated in a few areas where bridges and overpasses turned icy. Out of 19 crashes reported in Wake County, six were on Interstate 540 and four were on Buffaloe Road near I-540.
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A string of minor accidents stopped westbound traffic for more than an hour on Interstate 40 in rural Orange County. Another handful of crash reports came from two stretches of Interstate 85 in eastern Orange County and northern Durham. Only a few accidents involved injuries.
“Most of these were the fender bender, one car losing control and hitting the ditch or the guard rail,” Gordon said.
The icy spots melted away as the rain stopped and temperatures climbed above freezing by 9 a.m. Thursday.
Local forecasters had discussed on Wednesday the possibility that rain would freeze after falling on Triangle roads Thursday morning, but they weren’t sure what would happen.
“With every forecast, there’s an element of uncertainty,” said Nick Petro, a National Weather Service meteorologist. “For this one there was a lot of uncertainty related to just how much precipitation would fall. It was very light amounts.”
Road maintenance crews were on call, and they went to work with sand and salt trucks after the weather service issued its winter weather advisory.
“Once the advisory was issued, that there was some freezing rain, they called the crews and had some people out there between 5:30 and 6 a.m.,” DOT spokeswoman Nicole Meister said. “We always have our crews ready. We have to look at the weather. If they’re calling for something, we respond accordingly.”
The Triangle forecast calls for clear skies until Saturday, with rain storms likely Saturday night and Sunday.