Heavy snow paralyzes main expressway in Eastern Japan

JAPAN - A week after being hit by a record-setting heavy snowfall, parts of eastern Japan were ravaged by another extraordinarily heavy snowfall that made many sections of the region's expressway system impassable over the weekend.

Traffic on the Tomei Expressway, the main artery for physical distribution in the region, was suspended for more than 20 hours, starting late Friday night. Meanwhile, a number of skidding accidents were reported in central Tokyo.

Operation of most of the Tokyo-bound expressways was suspended all along the line by about 2:30 p.m. Saturday. The situation was particularly chaotic on the Tomei Expressway, with traffic jams stretching over more than 40 kilometers on both the Tokyo-bound and the outbound lanes.

On Feb. 8, when the first heavy snow hit the region, Central Nippon Expressway Co., Tomei's operator, suspended operation on the Shin-Tomei Expressway that runs along the Tomei in Shizuoka Prefecture for 49 hours to concentrate its efforts on melting snow along the Tomei. As a result, the operator succeeded in preventing a major traffic jam on the Tomei.

Again on this weekend, the operator suspended the less traveled Shin-Tomei, and focused its efforts on using snowplows and vehicles to sprinkle antifreeze agents on the Tomei.

However, what the operator did not expect was a string of skidding accidents. A traffic jam started to form due to a skidding accident by a car on the outbound lane near the Ayuzawa rest area in Yamakita, Kanagawa Prefecture, at 5:20 p.m. on Friday.

Another traffic jam on the Tokyo-bound lane was prompted by a skidding accident near Susono, Shizuoka Prefecture. The traffic jams on both lanes stretched to 40 kilometers by early Saturday.

Another factor that resulted in the traffic confusion was massive amounts of snowfall that surpassed expectations. According to the Shizuoka Local Meteorological Observatory, 85 centimeters of snow fell in Gotemba, Shizuoka Prefecture, over the weekend, almost triple the 29-centimeter snowfall on Feb. 8. Since many vehicles on the Tomei were running on normal tires, their tires spun freely on the road.

According to the operator, vehicles with normal tires were able to run when the traffic jam started as there was little snow on the road. As a result, the operator put chain restrictions into effect only in limited areas along the Tomei. The operator eventually suspended operation on the Tokyo-bound lane near Susono at about 1 a.m. on Saturday and 3 a.m. on the outbound lane after traffic on both lanes became severely jammed. A long chain of vehicles remained on the expressway after a whole day, as vehicles at the end of the traffic jam had not been able to move due to snow.

The operator removed vehicles unable to move from the expressway with tow trucks, but it could not remove all such vehicles as of Saturday night. As to the Shin-Tomei, works to remove snow has not been completed, leaving the section between Gotemba and Nagaizumi-Numazu suspended.

Some drivers of vehicles that got stuck in the road spent two nights in their cars.

"[The operator] didn't take any precautions against snowfall. If it did so, this would never happen," said Fumio Fukuda, a 44-year-old truck driver who spent the night at Fujikawa rest area in Fuji, Shizuoka Prefecture.

Another truck driver whose vehicle was unable to move due to the traffic jam on Saturday night said: "I turned off the engine to save fuel. But it made me feel cold. All I could do was to wrap myself with a blanket which I usually put in the cab for a nap and sleep all day."