A day with the snowplow drivers

As the writer of these weekly articles on traffic law and safety, sometimes I get to do interesting things. On Dec. 27, the day the Malone area received 13 inches of new snow (the most since a 14-inch storm in April, 2010), I spent most of the day riding with our local snowplow drivers not the pickup trucks plowing driveways and parking lots, but with the state Department of Transportation plowing state highways and with the Town of Malone plowing town roads. The purpose of this was to get a prospective on just how difficult a highway snowplow driver’s job really is, how motorists add to the difficulty of the job, and to give readers a brief insight to what plowing highways entails.

The storm began just after midnight that night and snowed until about 10 p.m. that night. I began my day shortly after 8 a.m. with the DOT and highway foreman Eric Wood, who arranged for me to ride with Shaun Reville, a veteran of about 12 years with the state. His route is U.S. 11 from the intersection with Finney Blvd. to the Burke Town garage, which includes downtown Malone with multiple lanes and many sidewalk bump outs.

During winter, DOT normally utilizes two shifts: 4 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 12:30 to 9 p.m. However, during lengthy snowstorms, they work 12-hour shifts around the clock. As we pulled out of the garage on Constable St., Shaun dropped the plows (main plow and wing). As it was snowing heavily, there was plenty of snow to plow. Traffic was very light because of the intensity of the storm.

On Main St. we plowed the inside lanes first and then the outside lanes. Out of town toward Burke, we plowed the driving lanes on our first trip, then the shoulders on our second trip. Shaun drove at about 33 mph, enabling him to “throw” the snow some distance from the highway, keeping the depth of the snowplow banks to a minimum.

Because it was snowing so hard, Shaun did not apply rock salt to the highway that would be done after the intensity of the storm lessened. When temperatures are below 15 to 20 degrees, calcium chloride is sprayed on the salt as it is discharged from the truck. This enables the salt to work in colder conditions. Of interest, before the storm began, DOT crews applied brine to the bare roads. This is done to prevent the bonding of the snow to the pavement, which allows for achieving bare pavement soon after the storm ends.

Back in town, we then plowed the parking areas of Main St. The bump outs forced the truck to pull around these obstacles. It also meant Shaun had to keep close eyes on drivers just behind the plow before pulling around the bump outs.

My afternoon began at the Town of Malone garage. Highway superintendent Tom Shanty introduced me to plow driver Rick Yelle. His (our) route that day was in the northeast part of the town, including the following roads: Muzzy, Donohue, Stacy, Junction, Houndsville, Whitten, and Valley. Plowing town roads is quite different from state highways. Town road plowing involves much backing up, and the roads are much narrower. It involves keeping intersections clear, rather than just plowing past another road and dumping snow on it.

Whereas the state trucks go for miles without raising or lowering the plows, the town operators are dropping and raising the blades at every intersection. To give me a taste of this, Rick allowed me to work both the plows near the end of my day with him. And, before you wonder, I did not hit any mailboxes.

Putting together my two travel experiences, I have a far better appreciation of the job these guys do, something too many motorists take for granted. Consider this: they drive a heavy, large truck, equipped with a huge front plow and a wing plow. The length of this vehicle, including the plow, is 35 to 40 feet, and the width with the wing plow is about 14 feet. They must drive this equipment in the worst of weather conditions, including poor visibility, while contending with other traffic, parked cars, rural mail boxes, guide rails, ditches, pedestrians, and residents shoveling or blowing out their driveways. And they do this for eight to 12 straight hours or more. Keeping roads passable during a storm is considered emergency operations and therefore snowplow operators do not fall under the limit of consecutive hours allowed for commercial drivers.

The DOT and the town of Malone plow with one man in the truck. This person must drive, operate the plows, and apply salt or sand. Talk about multi-tasking.

So, here is the wish list that snowplow drivers have for other motorists. First and most important, please don’t be so impatient. Give these guys a chance to get the roads in the condition that you want them in. Be more considerate, and give them the respect they deserve. If you meet a plow, give it plenty of room – the plow will likely be slightly across the center line or the center of the road. Never pull up behind a stopped plow, its next move may be to back up. If you are ahead of a plow and you are traveling slower than it is, don’t just pull over – go to the next side road or parking area and pull off. If you just pull over, the plow will have to go around you, leaving that section of the road unplowed.

If you are about to enter a street or road and see a snowplow approaching, let it pass – don’t pull out in front of it. A steady speed is best for plowing, don’t interrupt that. And, don’t get so impatient if you get in a line of traffic following the plow. The operator has an important job to do – you won’t be inconvenienced for long.