HELENA – Law enforcement agencies across central and northern Montana warned drivers to stay off the roads if possible Wednesday night, because of heavy snow, winds and poor visibility.
The Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office was among the agencies that issued advisories about dangerous driving conditions. Sheriff Leo Dutton said he approved the warning after deputies reported extremely difficult weather on the roads.
“In the northern part of our county, the deputy couldn’t see past the windshield wipers,” he said. “It was that significant, and it’s not safe to be out in that.”
The sheriff’s office announced the advisory online and through social media. The National Weather Service, in conjunction with the local 911 center, also forwarded Dutton’s warning on to many people with cell phones.
Dutton said he decided to lift the advisory just after 4 a.m. Thursday, after deputies said the worst of the storm had passed.
Lewis and Clark County’s advisory was titled an “emergency travel only notice.” Dutton said Thursday he had heard some confusion about what that term meant. He said the sheriff’s office was not closing the roads, since only the Montana Department of Transportation has the authority to do that. Instead, it was just a warning for people to avoid making unnecessary trips.
Dutton said, in order to clarify in the future, his office will no longer use the term “emergency travel only” in its advisories. Instead, they will say “severe driving conditions.”
“What we want to do is not cause panic, but we want people to be traveling in a safe manner,” he said.
Despite the change in terminology, Dutton said the meaning is the same: If people don’t have to drive in severe conditions, they should stay home.
“We’re trying to make it safe for all of you, and in doing so, we’ll get better to have a consistent message,” he said.
Montana Highway Patrol leaders said they responded to 14 vehicle slideoffs in Lewis and Clark, Jefferson and Broadwater Counties Wednesday night and early Thursday morning.