Near Albert Lea, a half-dozen skeptics had to be rescued in the middle of last week’s blizzard after they went out for a drive to see if the roads were really as dangerous as officials had warned.
In Duluth, the parking lots of local restaurants have been filled during and after big snowfalls this winter despite officials advising no travel.
And in Hennepin County, social media lit up last month when the roads weren’t cleared as quickly as some motorists had hoped: “second day of icy roads,” one man posted on Nextdoor. “With all the trucks with salt and sand, ABSOLUTELY NO EXCUSE.”
Emergency management officials and snowplow drivers see it over and over: Despite warnings to stay off the roads during the worst of winter, some drivers insist on getting out and traveling anyway. Emboldened by a series of mild winters, better technology in four-wheel-drive vehicles and chloride compounds that quickly clear roads to dry pavement, many drivers scoff at bad weather, unconvinced that it can slow them down much in this modern age.
But are Minnesotans expecting too much?
Yes, some road officials say. While expectations for winter travel have changed over the decades, the dangers from snow and ice haven’t.
“We’re in a fast-food society, and we expect everything to just be instantly taken care of for us,” said Rich Hall, Freeborn County emergency management director. “That’s not how it works. We’ve come a long way … but Mother Nature still wins out when push comes to shove. It’s really that simple.”
Advances in snowplowing and other road-clearing techniques have improved dramatically, officials said. So when state and local governments clear streets and highways quickly, it becomes the norm — particularly in populated areas.
Crews in Washington County now start clearing roads for morning rush hour at 3 a.m. instead of 5 a.m., as they once did, said county engineer Wayne Sandberg.
“Years ago, especially in Minnesota, people were comfortable with maybe some snow on the road,” Sandberg said. “I grew up in Washington County. It was very common to have roads like Manning Avenue snow-packed all winter. That would be unheard of today.”
Now, more efficient plows allow drivers to clear wider swaths more quickly, and chemicals have changed the game.
While trucks once favored spreading sand to give vehicles some grip, they now spread salt and other compounds that melt snow and ice quickly, with some even working in subzero temperatures, said Jay Emerson, MnDOT snow and ice superintendent for the metro district.
Drivers in modern snowplows can feed weather and road conditions into a computer to calculate the proper amounts of salt and chemical application, Emerson said.
The ever-improving equipment allows crews to clear roads much more efficiently than they did decades ago, officials said, improving safety and making traffic move more smoothly.
People grow accustomed to crews doing a good job, Emerson said. “But then when we have some inconsistencies in the weather, like when we get colder temperatures and stuff like that, they expect the same level of service — and we can’t provide that because the chemicals and everything take a little longer to work.”
In a fast-paced society, people don’t want to let something as mundane as weather slow them down. They keep appointments, expect to go into work and sometimes even gripe when schools are canceled.
“It’s becoming a huge social issue … where almost people believe it’s their right that they don’t have snow at the end of their driveway and that their road is plowed right away in the morning,” said Geoff Vukelich, lead worker for street maintenance in Duluth, a city of steep roadways. “People don’t necessarily want to just stay home and let the snow do its thing. They want to go to the mall or out to dinner … because it’s only 3 to 4 inches of snow. Unfortunately, that’s usually when those accidents happen.”
More advanced technology in vehicles also gives people a false sense of security, officials said, luring them out on the roads and giving them confidence to go too fast for the conditions.
One December a few years ago, as vehicles were sliding into ditches all over Freeborn County, Sheriff Kurt Freitag couldn’t help but note drivers who felt overconfident of the technology underneath them.
“The first 16 vehicles that I came across were all four-wheel-drives,” he said. If drivers use proper caution, he said, “that four-wheel-drive should be the last vehicle in the ditch.”
Fewer people are practiced at driving on snow and ice, officials said. Winters have been milder in recent years, and the population is more transient, with more residents who grew up in warmer states. The roads are also clear and dry more quickly.
“We’re training a new generation of drivers to be used to that,” Sandberg said. He sees it, he said, in the driving habits of his two teenagers, who have grown up with dry pavement. “If the road isn’t clear, they quite frankly wouldn’t have the skill to navigate that.”
When crashes happen, though, officials are called to pull people out of the ditch and write police reports. In some cases, maintenance officials rush to tend to slippery spots where crashes have occurred, trying to prevent others from crashing, too. It can mean big dollars in overtime and resources.
There’s also an environmental cost to spreading the chemicals.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has been promoting a campaign to Salt Smart, encouraging homeowners and businesses to scatter salt grains 3 inches apart for maximum efficiency and minimal environmental effect. One teaspoon of salt pollutes 5 gallons of water, pollution control officials say, and there’s no feasible way to remove it from surface waters.
The idea of spreading salt on the roads started gaining traction in the late 1960s and early 1970s, said Brooke Asleson, the MPCA’s water pollution prevention coordinator.
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“Everyone started using salt because it made winter maintenance so much easier,” she said.
But by 1996, the state listed its first surface water — Shingle Creek — as impaired because of chloride. Now 50 surface waters are on the chloride-impaired list and 120 are on a high-risk list.
Reducing the use of salt would mean reaching a new equilibrium in the waterways, where the amount making its way into lakes and streams would be tolerable to fish and aquatic insects, Asleson said.
“We have to find that balance. How can we maintain our level of public safety and protect our water resources?” she said.
While officials hope to have a better, environmentally friendly solution, she said, expectations could be adjusted, too. “Maybe we will have a shift in … what we are willing to accept in Minnesota winters.”