In the winter of 2017-18, there were 84 collisions involving motorists and Minnesota Department of Transportation snowplows. That was a substantial increase over the 55 crashes reported the winter before, and it was the most in the past four winters.
With a simple invention, Nate Smith, part of the agency’s Safety Innovation Team, hopes to make things safer for both plow operators and motorists and to bring crash numbers down.
The team came up with the idea for a lighted plow marker, which looks sort of like a lightsaber from the “Star Wars” movies. The markers are plastic tubes that Smith stuffs with LED rope lights and mounts on the outer edges of the plow’s blades. The goal is to make it easier for motorists to see the edges of the blades so they don’t hit them.
The markers could be particularly helpful for highlighting the wing blades on the sides of plows that often are used for clearing snow from shoulders and turn lanes and are difficult for motorists to see at night. Last year, wing blades were struck eight times.
Plows often kick up giant plumes of snow and obscure vision for motorists and plow drivers. Snow clouds can hide the plows’ strobe lights. But the flexible markers that glow orange are very bright, and drivers can see them from up to a half-mile away, even in poor visibility, Smith said.
By law, snowplows are considered emergency vehicles, so drivers should yield to them and give plenty of clearance.
The vehicles, which weigh 60,000 pounds and are more than 20 feet wide, are allowed to take up two lanes. The glowing new plow markers should help motorists determine where the plow blades are and whether it is safe to pass.
Smith said the markers also help plow operators see the edge of the blade. That helps them avoid toppling mailboxes, signs or other roadside obstacles as they clear the snow.
In the past, ideas like the lighted plow markers had to be approved by a committee before they could be implemented. But Smith, a six-year MnDOT veteran and a heavy equipment mechanic at the agency’s Maple Grove truck station, said the Safety Innovation Team has freedom to experiment.
The lighted plow markers were a “no-brainer,” he said. As a plow driver, “I can see right where the tip [of the blade] is.”
Each plow marker costs about $30 to make, and they are being tested on about 20 vehicles in the metro area.
If they prove to be effective, Smith said they could be installed on all 237 MnDOT plows in the metro area and eventually on plows statewide.
That is a small price to pay if it can prevent plow-vehicle collisions.
“We don’t ever want to put a driver or plow operator in that situation,” he said.
The Safety Innovation Team has also spearheaded other projects aiming to make plows safer. The group came up with the idea for small deflectors on the plows’ hoods to prevent ice from building up on and then hitting windshields.
It also pushed to move the plows’ rearview cameras to a new position to give plow operators a better view.
When the cameras were fastened to the lower portion of the plow, they often became covered with snow that obscured the view. Smith and the safety team tried mounting them high atop the cab to keep them clear — and it worked, he said.
Follow news about traffic and commuting at The Drive on startribune.com. Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.