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Ice storm chaos: How Atlanta commute turned into a demolition derby

Atlanta reported more than 1,000 accidents as freezing rain coated roadways Wednesday night. The ice storm is another chapter in the South's strangely cold start to winter.

By Staff writer / December 16, 2010

Motorists come to a standstill on the Stone Mountain Freeway due to an ice storm Thursday in Georgia's DeKalb County.

John Spink/Atlanta Journal & Constitution/AP

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Atlanta

Southerners are used to demolition derbies, but a mass of commuters surprised by an early winter ice storm found themselves on a giant hockey rink Wednesday.

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The Atlanta metro area alone saw more than 1,000 accidents as motorists slid off roads, crashed into each other, and, in many cases, simply abandoned their cars and checked into motels literally miles from their homes. Few serious injuries were reported.

Georgia's state climatologist, David Stooksbury, came to the defense of the drivers involved in the great 2010 ice storm mashup. "I've seen drivers in the Midwest driving on ice, and they can't do it, either, so I don't want to hear it from them," says Mr. Stooksbury, who works at the University of Georgia.

IN PICTURES: Winter weather

But he conceded that "part of it is just not knowing how to react, and I think Wednesday was a prime example of that where [Southerners] didn't quite understand that when it's this cold and it starts to rain that you really do need to slow down. And the people with the four-wheel drives, yeah, it may help you drive faster, but we don't have a thing called four-wheeled stop."

Lead-footed commuters collided and skidded off roads as the commute got bogged down with numerous road closings, including several ramps to the famed Spaghetti Junction at the intersection of I-85 and I-285. A leaf-thin sheet of black ice coated roads just as dusk fell on the height of rush hour.

"In a four-mile stretch from the jail to my house, I saw 50 cars abandoned, littered along the roads," Lt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Most Northerners take this kind of winter storm on the chin. But in the South, residents get little help from local governments – in a region where the average annual temperature is in the low 60s, fully preparing for massive snow and ice events just doesn't make economic sense.

Historically, snow storms and ice storms remain largely one-off events in the South, serving more as battle tales than lessons learned. Wednesday's ice event reminded many long-time Atlantans of "Snowjam," a 1982 storm that stranded thousands of commuters as six inches of snow fell on the infamous Atlanta rushhour – the third-worst in the nation behind Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

Yet Southerners may be gaining some cold-weather driving experience as the region is in the midst of a wintry trend. A high-pressure oscillation off Greenland has sent early winter conditions deep into the South for the second year in a row, confounding atmospheric scientists. As a result, the possibility of another extreme winter may have to force Southern drivers to curb their NASCAR habits in favor the low-and-slow styles of New England winter driving.

In a piece for Richmond.com, Southerner Kerry Peifer adds a personal touch to that geographical winter divide.

"When my New Englander boyfriend cleans off the car, he cleans off the whole car: the top, the hood, the windshield, even the rearview mirror," she writes. "I partially scrape off a space about the size of my face on the driver’s side windshield and periodically stop the car and peer out my rolled down window if I need to see any further."

IN PICTURES: Winter weather

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