WILLMAR — Even though there may not be snow on the ground next week, snowplows will be out on state highways.
Blame it on COVID.
Usually at this time of year, all the new snowplow drivers hired by the Minnesota Department of Transportation spend two weeks at Camp Ripley in classroom training and on an obstacle course, learning how to maneuver snowplows through the traffic cones.
The large group sessions typically last for a month, with rural drivers attending together for two weeks and then the metro drivers taking a two-week turn.
But because of COVID-19, the large classes have been canceled and classroom training sessions are being held at local MnDOT district offices and the behind-the-wheel training is being done on local highways.
In District 8, which includes Chippewa, Kandiyohi, Lac qui Parle, Lincoln, Lyon, McLeod, Meeker, Murray, Pipestone, Redwood, Renville and Yellow Medicine counties, snowplow training will primarily take place on state highways around Willmar, Hutchinson, Marshall and Montevideo, but snowplows may be seen in other cities within the district as well, according to Sandra Schlagel, public affairs coordinator for District 8.
Seeing snowplows on the roads — hopefully — doesn’t mean there’s a big storm imminent. It’s just Plan B for completing the new driver training.
The training is designed to prepare people who have never driven a big rig before and those who have driven trucks for 25 years, said Tim McCoy, MnDOT District 8 maintenance supervisor.
Because there’s a “lot of iron” attached to a snowplow, McCoy said drivers need to “learn how wide that plow is and how it turns.”
Even people who have experience driving large vehicles need to learn the ropes of driving a truck with wings out and the plow down when trying to clear icy, snow-packed roads during white-out conditions without knocking over mailboxes.
After the training session, new drivers will spend time riding with a mentor during the first several snow events before going solo, said McCoy.
The training is coming just in time for the official start of the “snow and ice” season, which begins Monday.
McCoy said he wants people to be aware that snowplows are conducting training when they’re out on the roads this month, even though there may not be a flake of snow to be found.
But he said people should also be aware that MnDOT snowplows are typically out on state highways in the early morning hours during the snow and ice season, even when roads are dry.
He said as part of the state highway safety routine, a driver will typically come to the MnDOT sites at 1 a.m., check the radar and then hit the road in a snowplow, whether there is snow or not.
McCoy said drivers are looking for a variety of potential problems, like potholes, debris, icy bridge decks and the surprise snowdrift on an otherwise clear road.
Despite raised eyebrows from the public who may wonder why a snowplow is driving up and down the highway on an early snow-free morning, McCoy said the “dawn patrol” is an important part of keeping roads and drivers safe.
Although engineers and other MnDOT staff are working from home because of COVID, McCoy said the crew in the maintenance department are in the shop and getting equipment ready for winter.
When that first measurable snow will hit is anyone’s guess.
“I’m hoping for a warm, dry winter,” said McCoy. “But I doubt it’ll happen.”