As road crews prepare for the plowing season, well-trained drivers, tuned-up trucks and new technology help make roads safer in winter.
At the Hennepin County public works facility in Median, journeyman mechanic Scott Woodbridge installed the fasteners for the sand dispenser at the back of the snowplow truck. It is one of 74 trucks that the county must spend four hours each on to get ready for plowing before checking all the electronics on board.
While the rest of Minnesota was soaking up summer’s end, the mechanics in Hennepin County’s public works garages had already picked up their wrenches and started to hoist the iron onto the trucks for winter.
The process of preparing snowplows begins in mid-August. The truck changeover used to start in September — until the Halloween blizzard of 1991, a touchstone event in snow-removal circles.
“That was a real eye-opener,” said Brian Langseth, transportation manager for the county, who works at the county’s capacious public works facility in Medina.
The preparations for the plowing season have intensified as the days get darker and the words “chance of snow” start to slip into in the forecast, as they have for most days next week. In Hennepin County, the expectation is that the entire fleet and drivers on 66 plow routes will be ready to roll by early November.
The process takes time because the trucks doing summer road repairs are the same ones needed for snow removal.
Snow removal has changed a lot in the decades since salt and sand were shoveled off the back of a pickup truck and chains went onto the plow tires. Computers and chemistry have made snow removal and driver training more precise.
Preparing the trucks, however, remains heavy labor. Mechanics take about four hours to hoist the blades and sanders onto the trucks. Once the iron is on, the electronics get checked. If all is good, that can take 10 minutes. If there’s troubleshooting, it can go for hours.
Sanders on the trucks must be calibrated. This year, for the first time, Hennepin County is using a portable machine about the size of a laptop that can measure sand output to the pound. The old stationary scale could only calibrate in 20-pound increments. “The process ensures that what we put on the dial, we put on the roads,” Langseth said.
The calibrators for the salt sanders mean much less salt goes on the roads. Where plows used to drop up to 600 pounds per mile, they now drop no more than 200.
An extensive state weather tracking system also helps manage how the snow removers react a storm. “It’s very rare that a snowstorm will catch us by surprise,” said Kent Barnard, Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman.
MnDOT has sensors the size of hockey pucks throughout Minnesota that report on the pavement and snow temperatures. Other equipment monitors wind speed and moisture content. All that knowledge helps the agencies know when to lay down a solution that works to prevent snow from bonding with the roadways and making them icy or rough.
Sharp behind the wheel
Behind the technology are the drivers. A class of new drivers is at Camp Ripley undergoing two intensive weeks of training. “It starts very basic; then the challenges become tougher and tougher,” said Brad Swartz, a trainer for the state.
They will be driving massive rigs with sirens, loads of salt, brine and blades to drop at the right times. Plow drivers get tested in the training headquarters on a simulator in Swartz’s office.
The training machines replicate the cab of a truck. Swartz controls the weather and traffic conditions from his computer. He can create low visibility, icy pavement, reckless pedestrians and aggressive drivers. The computer kicks out a sheet grading the trainee’s performance on several categories, starting with seat-belt use and including speed, distance and collisions.
Preparation occurs on the roads as well. In Hennepin County, the drivers bid on their routes this week and then spent an afternoon reviewing the terrain in daylight.
Langseth said the drivers look for possible hazards in the road, recording low-hanging trees, protruding or fallen fences, potholes or pavement imperfections. Even a small irregularity can snag a plow blade and stop the truck hard. “They’re looking for all kinds of things that might be a hindrance,” Langseth said.
One variable no one can predict: the behavior of other drivers. That can be the biggest hazard of all. “Don’t crowd the plow,” is the public-information mantra, but Barnard and Swartz say aggressive drivers still imperil lives by cutting off plows.
As for the weather this winter, Barnard said the Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts a cold, snowy winter, but, he added, “Who knows? Pull a quarter out of your pocket — heads we’re going to get more snow, tails we won’t, and if it lands on its side, we’ll get none.”
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747