AUSTIN (KXAN) — Dust storms are no longer considered rare and confined to any particular region or regions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Air Resources Laboratory issued a report in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society finding these storms are causing an increase in the number of traffic fatalities in the United States.
The most recent dust storm happened on May 1 when 72 vehicles were involved in a crash just south of Springfield, Illinois. Seven people died. High winds, gusting to as high as 45 to 54 mph, blew topsoil from freshly plowed farm fields. Visibility was reduced to zero.
NOAA’s report went on to propose changes on how dust storms should be reclassified to better assess the impacts of dust storms. Their thinking is that dust storm occurrences cause fatalities similar to those that happen from hurricanes and wildfires.
It’s the southwest United States where most of the dust storms, and fatalities, happen. Active thunderstorms that produce strong wind gusts bring up dust and sand from the deserts. However, as we saw in Illinois earlier this month, they can happen anywhere where winds are strong blowing loose soil.
Most dust storms in Texas usually occur in the western part of the state, perhaps most notably in the Panhandle and South Plains. The worst dust storm in the Lone Star State happened in April 1935 on what is known as Black Sunday. Amarillo, Dalhart, Pampa, and Spearman are among the many areas affected by the dust storms that destroyed farmlands and homes, and created both mental and physical problems.
If you have never been in one you might not understand why there are so many fatal accidents. Drivers are panic-stricken because these storms catch them unprepared. Visibility is at zero; drivers can’t see anything so they lose control of their vehicles. With that loss of control drivers crash into obstacles they can’t see, including the car ahead of either side of them.
To add to this, the dust that gathers on the pavement cause a loss of traction making the car spill out of control.
NOAA’s research determined that dust storm-related crashes were not being reported accurately. They examined two of NOAA’s own databases to determine this inaccuracy. Their analysis of information from 2007 to 2017 updated the number of dust storm-related fatalities from 10 to as many as 14 to 32 per year.
So, they have made recommendations on how reporting these storms could be improved. One possibility is that “states could use a consistent reporting form for the cause of crashes.” They also suggest a collaboration effort by weather agencies and law enforcement to both identify and report dust storms for better accuracy.