Although it's the large weather events such as tornadoes and hurricanes that get most of the news media's attention, the USA's biggest weather killer by far is car accidents, says James Koermer, a meteorology professor at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire.
On average, more than 7,000 Americans die in weather-related wrecks each year on our nation's highways, according to data from the Federal Highway Administration. The FHA defines weather-related crashes as those that occur in adverse weather such as rain, sleet, snow or fog, or on slick pavement.
Koermer is the moderator of a session Thursday at the American Meteorological Society's Washington Forum in Washington, D.C., "New Developments and Opportunities in Surface Transportation," which will focus on ways these accidents can be reduced or prevented.
Although the news media does pay some attention to multicar pileups, of which there have been at least 19 on U.S. highways so far this year, leaving eight people dead and 700 wrecked cars, according to a USA TODAY analysis -- it's the mundane but still tragic single- or two-car accidents on wet roads that cause most of the deaths.
"There is such a focus on the big events, that to have one or two people dying at a time just isn't a catastrophic event," says Kevin Petty, chief science officer of Finnish meteorology firm Vaisala, which studies this subject. Most of those 7,000 people are dying at a rate of one or two per accident, he says.
Until very recently, "there was no awareness of how big an issue it is," says science program manager Sheldon Drobot of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo. Indeed, these numbers are not included in the National Weather Service's toll of annual deaths caused by weather, which usually numbers in the hundreds, mostly from heat, hurricanes, tornadoes and floods.
Why is this? "The weather event must be an active agent in the fatality or injury," weather service spokesman Chris Vaccaro says. "If heavy snow falls from a tree and crushes someone, that would be the snow killing the person. If the roads are slippery and someone crashes and dies, that would be the person's driving too fast in the elements that killed the person."
The session Thursday will explore ways that using the latest technology might help weather information get to people out on the roads and warn them of potentially dangerous weather ahead, such as whiteouts, fog, or wildfire smoke. Scientists at NCAR and Vaisala will be reporting on the latest research.
At Vaisala, Petty said there is "a growing understanding that we have to bring traffic and weather together" using the latest technology. "Cars themselves have the ability to sense what's going on in the environment ," he says, "and the key is to share the information with the other nearby vehicles on the road, such as those following 10 miles behind."
And at NCAR, Drobot is overseeing development of a prototype system, known as the "Vehicle Data Translator," to provide drivers with up-to-the-minute information on road and atmosphere conditions.
The system will use wireless technology to use cars as mobile weather stations, collecting and relaying detailed information about local weather and road conditions and thereby helping prevent other drivers from being surprised by such hazards as black ice, fog, and hail.
The idea is to eventually have data sampling of all cars on the road: "It turns out that your vehicle is collecting a ton of interesting information," says Drobot, principal investigator of the research project, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation. "Cars have all these computers in them nowadays, and they're incredibly complicated. They know all kinds of stuff that's going on, but they don't really share that information."
And with 250 million cars on the road, that's a lot of data that could be shared, he says.
Click here to see North Carolina weather related crashes for 2011.