Wet weather and heavy holiday traffic have public safety officials on guard for what could be a dicey travel weekend for the Christmas holiday.
Rain was forecast in the St. George area starting late Thursday and lasting through the weekend, while higher-elevation communities from Cedar City northward were likely to see at least some snow.
Law enforcement officials and transportation managers were anxious about the timing, with winter weather coming in two days before Christmas, traditionally one of the busiest travel days of the year.
Traffic forecasters were predicting that many people who had to cancel getaways and family visits last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic would try to make up for lost time this holiday season, with AAA predicting in its year-end holiday travel forecast that overall traffic would increase more than 30% year-over-year.
For travelers in Utah, the busy Interstate 15 and I-80 corridors were likely to take drivers through sometimes heavy precipitation.
The St. George area had an 80% chance of rain on Thursday and a 90% chance on Friday, with another 40% chance on Christmas Day, according to the National Weather Service. Temperatures were also expected to cool, with nighttime lows approaching freezing temperatures and potential snow by Monday morning.
Uphill to the north, Cedar City was forecasted to see the rain turn into snow by late Friday, with a 50% chance of snow on Saturday, according to the NWS.
“Active weather with heavy mountain snow and lower elevation rain will engulf much of the western U.S. during the next couple of days,” according to an alert issued by the NWS.
In the meantime, travel groups were forecasting a busy Christmas in terms of travelers, with more people willing to leave home for the winter holiday after many stayed home in 2020. More than 109 million people — an almost 34% increase from 2020 — were expected to travel 50 miles or more between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2, according to AAA’s forecast.
“Americans who canceled their vacations in 2020 want to gather with family and friends for the holidays this year, although they will still be mindful of the pandemic and the new omicron variant,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel. “With vaccines widely available, conditions are much different and many people feel a greater level of comfort with travel.”
The Utah Department of Public Safety maintains a list of winter driving tips at http://highwaysafety.utah.gov/winter-driving, and regular updates on road conditions and weather forecasts are kept at commuterlink.utah.gov or via a telephone hotline at (866) 511-UTAH.
Safety tips for heavy rains and icy roads
- Decrease your speed and leave yourself plenty of room to stop. You should allow at least three times more space than usual between you and the car in front of you.
- Brake gently to avoid skidding. If your wheels start to lock up, ease off the brake.
- Turn on your lights to increase your visibility to other motorists.
- Keep your lights and windshield clean.
- Use low gears to keep traction, especially on hills.
- Don’t use cruise control or overdrive on wet or icy roads.
- Be especially careful on bridges, overpasses and infrequently traveled roads, which will freeze first. Even at temperatures above freezing, if the conditions are wet, you might encounter ice in shady areas or on exposed roadways like bridges.
- Don’t pass snow plows and sanding trucks. The drivers have limited visibility, and you’re likely to find the road in front of them worse than the road behind.