At least twice during Friday’s snowy morning commute, motorists collided with snowplows clearing the roads.
Last week, a driver attempting to squeeze between a semitrailer truck and a MnDOT snowplow on icy Interstate 94 near Barnesville, Minn., hit the plow and triggered a four-vehicle pileup.
The driver and a passenger in her vehicle died.
Sadly, the three crashes and two deaths were completely avoidable, said Bev Farraher, MnDOT’s metro district maintenance engineer. She attributes most wrecks involving snowplows to drivers’ lack of respect for them.
“People viscerally do not understand how heavy the trucks are and the consequences of bumping into it,” Farraher said. “They are getting more cavalier than we would like with passing the trucks or trying to.”
According to MnDOT, there were 21 crashes statewide involving vehicles that hit snowplows during winter of 2011-12. During the winter of 2010-11 — when the metro area saw more than 86 inches of snow — there were 73. Those figures do not include mishaps involving city or county plows.
While crash numbers will fluctuate based on the number of snowfalls each year, Farraher said many of the agency’s 1,700 plow operators say they have seen an increase in dangerous driving in recent years.
“Lots of folks are in a rush to get where they are going and feel some comfort level in pushing the edge of safety, and that scares us,” Farraher said. “We don’t want anybody hurt, or worse.”
Aside from rear-end collisions, crashes involving plows frequently occur when a motorist passes the massive orange truck, only to hit snowy pavement and spin out.
That happened on a Twin Cities freeway in December and the driver was hit. Two kids in the car were taken to the hospital.
Farraher said crashes also occur because drivers improperly assume plows travel in a straight line. Or they follow lane markings and get too close.
Plows must change lanes to clear turn lanes and exit ramps, then swing back into regular traffic lanes. Sometimes those maneuvers are sudden, Farraher said.
With more snow possible in the next few months, MnDOT has created a public service video to highlight the seriousness of the problem.
The 30-second spot on the agency’s website and its YouTube channel shows mangled remains of vehicles that tangled with plows. It ends with a plea from a snowplow driver who implores, “For your safety and ours, please slow down, stay back and stay alive.”
The agency has also taken steps to make its massive orange trucks, which can weigh from 50,000 to 70,000 pounds, more visible.
MnDOT has switched to LED lights that maintain their brightness.
It also has equipped its fleet of 800 plows with more lights on wings that stick out from the trucks, along with reflective tape.
Even with education and equipment upgrades, Farraher said that ultimately drivers need to modify their mind-set and behavior.
“People are caught up in their own lives and as a society we don’t recognize our environment as much as we used to,” she said. “We don’t plan trips as we used to. We just set out and hope the weather will accommodate us.”
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