Snowfall across the South caught warm-weather cities off-guard. (Jane Herman/Medill News Service)

Snowfall across the South caught warm-weather cities off-guard. (Jane Herman/Medill News Service)

WASHINGTON – With just a few inches of snow on roads, Atlanta drivers were stuck in their cars and children were forced to spend the night in their schools. The state of emergency in six Southern states due to winter storms resulted in at least 12 deaths, but the situations could have been controlled if the states were prepared to de-ice roads, according to the American Highway Users Alliance.

The condition of road surfaces is the single most important safety factor during winter snow or ice storms, and the cost for states to de-ice roads is offset by the cost of accidents and lost lives, according to a study  by University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, that the alliance cited.

Southern states should invest more money in safety plans for snowy conditions to avoid or reduce the worst effects of major storms, according to Gregory M. Cohen, president and CEO of American Highway Users Alliance.

“Even though these major incidents only occur every three to four years, they are still killing people,” said Cohen. “The fact is the cost of putting the salt out is recovered within a half an hour after it’s done in terms of the cost of the lives that are lost.”

The National Governors Association had no immediate comment.

Each year, more than 1,300 people are killed and more than 116,800 people are injured in vehicle crashes on snowy, slushy, or icy pavements, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Along with preventing injuries, there are economic benefits for states to invest in safety precautions for weather-related emergencies. According to a study prepared for the American Highway Users Alliance by HIS Global Insight, a one-day major snowstorm can cost a state $300 million to $700 million in direct and indirect costs. The study calculated that widespread snowstorm shutdowns result in  lost earnings of hourly workers, lost revenue of retail businesses and a resulting loss in tax revenue. The study also assumes that people who lost income will no longer be spending that money into the local economy.

The cost of de-icing the roads pays for itself by preventing accidents and other-snow related complications within 25 minutes after salt is applied, according to a Marquette University Study, which compares direct maintenance costs including labor and materials, like salt, and direct user benefits costs, including a decrease in injuries and property damage.