I started writing this post before Monday, February 5 – a day that proved to be terrible on Iowa roads. You can read about the wrecks, including some that were deadly, here, here, here, here, and here. I was filling in on the morning shift that day and knew it was going to be a bad day for travel. The very cold pavement temperatures (mainly in the single digits) and very fluffy, “airy” snow is a combination I’ve seen before. It always turns roads extremely slippery almost immediately. And that’s exactly what happened I tried to drill that message as much as I could, but I have no idea if it stuck.
Even though we covered the problems that ensued, including the fatalities, I still stand by what I originally penned:
We suck at protecting lives when it comes to low sexiness-high impact weather.
Yep, I’m coming out guns a-blazing on this blog post.
The National Academy of Sciences report that was released in late 2017 has me all riled up about something that has bothered me for a while. I don’t have answers or solutions, but I feel like I have to vent because I think sufficient attention isn’t being given to things that deserve it.
Extreme heat and cold, as well as inclement driving conditions due to precipitation, seem to be dismissed as simply weather. “Oh, it’s just summer/winter/whatever.” This indifference is reasonably understandable (but frustrating nonetheless) when it comes from the publics, but I feel that it’s a prevalent attitude among meteorologists, as well. More on that later.
More than a million vehicle crashes each year are weather-related, injuring 445,000 people and killing an average of nearly 6,000 people annually (source). The average number of people killed by tornadoes each year? 110. That’s an order of magnitude difference. When we obsess over tornado, flood (86 deaths), and lightning (31 deaths) safety, but largely ignore the seriousness of other weather, aren’t we doing a pretty shoddy job of communicating risks? Is it because precipitation and extreme temperatures aren’t sexy unless they’re occurring on a sufficiently large scale? Some may bristle at my claim that a tornado is sexy and say that such a statement is crass or offensive, but am I wrong? If a tornado causes three minor injuries, that’s noteworthy and newsworthy… but if a snowstorm causes three minor injuries, it’s a footnote.
It’s impractical to tell people stay off the roads anytime there’s an elevated risk of weather-related crashes. But there has to be something that can be done to lower those astronomical numbers of wrecks and injuries and fatalities. Beyond the attitudes I mentioned previously, I think there’s another perception battle that has to be fought. Just like how people fear flying much more than driving, even though the former is absolutely safer than the latter and the statistics back that up unequivocally… tornadoes feel like they’re more dangerous than slippery roads. There’s a lot of inertia behind those kinds of perceptions.
Moving on to extreme temperatures…
Some will talk about “stupid heat tips” by following “drink plenty of water and stay in the air conditioning” with “duh, you think?” To that, I’d like to respond: “‘Go to the lowest floor and stay away from windows if there’s a tornado coming.’ Duh, you think?” I imagine that, if I shouted that from the mountaintops, I’d be declared a heretic!
Can we improve what we suggest people do to avoid temperature-related illness or death? Yes. But to simply poke fun at the seeming obviousness of the existing suggestions that many meteorologists use is ignoring the reality that we make suggestions in other situations (read: sexy weather) that, if one were to step back, would appear just as obvious.
Maybe one of the issues with those types of messages during heat/cold is that the vulnerable population isn’t even hearing or seeing us talk about those things. So how do we reach them? Do we do it in a more roundabout way by using the people who do consume our content and try to compel them to check in on those people?
One of the issues is that extreme temperatures sometimes result in death by exacerbating a medical condition that a person already has. So, it’s entirely possible that weather being a contributing factor won’t even be noted, and that’s a problem that the CDC has noted in the past.
I realize that this was kind of rambly and perhaps even bordered on pontificating, but it’s stuff that is frustrating to me. I really wish I had some answers on what we could do, but I think we meteorologists need to start by looking in the mirror and telling ourselves that focusing so much on extreme weather at the expense of this other stuff isn’t working. I know we might be accused of hyping when we try to address how serious even a run-of-the-mill snowfall can be. But there needs to be a change in attitude – both among ourselves and in the publics we serve.