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Collisions with state’s snowplows cost everyone

MnDOT heavy equipment mechanic Mark Bendickson repairs a vehicle at the District 8 headquarters in Willmar. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

WILLMAR –– When a snowplow clearing snow and ice from roads is plowed into by another vehicle, it’s usually the other vehicle that ends up a wreck.

But the cost of that accident — which may be caused by motorists using cruise control, driving too fast for the conditions or not paying attention — trickles down to the public.

This season that cost has been higher than ever in the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s southwest district.

There have been six accidents so far involving MnDOT snowplows in District 8, headquartered in Willmar.

Typically there’s one collision a year, said Denny Marty, maintenance supervisor at the MnDOT office in Willmar. Some years that may be two, he said, but there has never been as many as this year.

In at least two of the accidents that involved a snowplow being rear-ended, the motorists were cited for inattentive driving.

On top of the citation fine and cost of a wrecked vehicle that the motorist incurs, the public also shares the cost when a vehicle collides with a MnDOT snowplow.

Because of their size, the damage to snowplows is oftentimes minimal, with repairs costing a few thousand dollars. Sometimes that cost is paid for by the motorist who caused the accident.

But the greatest cost is lost time clearing roads and the potential danger that can cause for other travelers.

Even a minor collision with a snowplow can eat up three to five hours of time, said Craig Gertsema, MnDOT District 8 maintenance superintendent in Hutchinson.

It’s common for MnDOT snowplows to cover an 80-mile route. At 20 mph it takes four hours to complete a pass on their designated roads, Gertsema said.

If that plow is not moving for four hours, it can mean that section of road is not getting plowed and motorists could be at risk.

If the crash happens on a high-traffic route, such as state Highway 23 between Willmar and New London, a plow may be pulled from a secondary route to take over on the high-priority road until the damaged plow can be checked at the shop, repaired and put back on the road.

The Willmar MnDOT facility has 18 snowplow trucks that are all kept busy during a weather event. Roads can’t be cleared as fast when 17 trucks are spread out over the same miles, Marty said.

“We lose trucks on the road and people see that,” Marty said.

“The level of service goes down,” Gertsema said. “It potentially impacts people on all the roads.”

Numerous accidents have been narrowly avoided this year when snowplow drivers took evasive action, Gertsema said.

In a recent incident on a highway bridge, a plow driver moved to avoid a car that was sliding in his path. The plow struck the guardrail to avoid being hit by the car, Gertsema said.

Plow drivers are “on their toes” watching out for distracted drivers and are ready to take evasive action, said Marty.

Just last week, a snowplow driver reported being passed by a male motorist who had a cell phone strapped to his leg. The man was texting as he was driving, Marty said. He said drivers need to slow down, turn off the cruise and “pay attention” when driving — especially when approaching a snowplow.

Besides the higher-than-normal number of accidents, this winter has presented other challenges to MnDOT.

There have not been large, single-day snowfalls to deal with, but numerous 1- to 3-inch snowfalls combined with freezing rain, high wind and a long stretch of extremely cold temperatures have made it challenging to maintain winter roads.

Marty said there have been “very few days” when MnDOT crews have not been out clearing roads in some part of the district.

So far this season — with winter far from over — District 8 has already used more salt, sand and brine than in the previous two years.

MnDOT keeps labor costs in check by scheduling split shifts during weather events. In the past four years, the district has averaged 40 days of split shifts.

This year there have already been 38 days.

To make split shifts work, MnDOT pulls employees such as project designers and engineers away from their desks and puts them into snowplows, working odd hours and working many days without a day off, Gertsema said.

“We use a little bit of everybody,” said Dave Johnston, MnDOT assistant district engineer.

Split shifts reduce overtime costs, but it also means work on designing projects and other behind-the-scenes work may be delayed. In winters like this year, it’s a schedule that allows MnDOT to do its job to keep roads open while being “fiscally responsible,” said Johnston.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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