Monday, December 5, 2016

Snowplows revving up as winter kicks into high gear

By Brett Cihon

If you're not a skier or don't head over the mountain passes often, it's probably been awhile since you've seen a snowplow.

But if predictions for this winter hold, you could soon spot the hulky vehicles on state roads.
Snowplows do everything from clearing the roads of snow
to putting down product such as sand and de-icer.

Plows have already been hard at work over our passes and they're ready to go should the snow that we started to see fall on Monday, Dec. 5 warrant it.

This time of year we inevitably get dozens of questions about snowplows. How do drivers train? Why do they plow when there's no snow on the roadway? What's the best way to pass them?

I checked in with our veteran Enumclaw-based plow drivers to get some answers.

How do they operate that thing?
Learning how to drive a snowplow is a bit like learning how to drive a car. A really big car. New maintenance technicians sit in the passenger seat of a plow while an experienced driver is behind the wheel. The veteran drives a route and explains the operations from the cab, including how much salt, sand or other material to use. Then, the new technician trains in parking lots or on simple routes along mountain passes when snow starts falling in early winter. These are low-risk situations and take place in infrequently traveled areas.

When the first big snowfall hits and groups of plows go out, it's usually the newest driver in the front so more experienced drivers can watch from behind and radio advice.
A look at how a snowplow operates
How do they get ready for a big storm?
In advance of a big forecasted storm, shop superintendents put crews on 12-hours shifts. Forecasts and temperatures are monitored closely and anti-icer is applied to roadways as indicated by the forecast, location and conditions. As the snow starts falling, plows work 24-7 to distribute the state's 169,000-plus tons of salt, sand or a salt/sand mix and more than 1.5 million gallons of liquid de-icer to the roads.

How can I safely pass a plow?
Short answer: Don't pass one. Plows are on the roadway to improve driving conditions. Snowplow drivers across the state can recount tales of speedy, impatient drivers blowing past only to spin out seconds later. Being behind a plow is often the safest place to be.

Most plows work at speeds between 25-35 mph. This allows for the sand and salt to fall properly onto the roadway. This is plenty fast for drivers in snowy conditions. No waiting needed!

If passing is a must, wait until the plow driver allows it. Often times, drivers will slow down and pull a bit to the side when there's cars behind them and conditions allow for passing. 
A look inside a snowplow
Where are you when we need you?
During an expansive lowland snow event, maintenance shops kick into high gear. Rest assured crews are working 24-7 to get roads clear. Crews rank the roads based on three levels of priority, and plow Level One priority roads first. High traffic routes such as Interstate 5 between Olympia and Seattle are prioritized, with less-traveled roads plowed later. Be patient. If it's a state road, we're likely coming to plow it.

This road is bare, why are you plowing it?
This depends. If snow is forecast and temperatures are below 35 degrees, the plows are likely spreading anti-icer as a preventative measure. Also, sometimes the road appears bare but there is actually a thin layer of slush. Lowland plows equipped with rubber plow rails are able to finely scrape the road for any remaining snow that could cause drivers to lose traction.

How do I become a snowplow driver?
Outside of some seasonal drivers hired to help Snoqualmie and other major mountain passes stay clear, the majority of our drivers are maintenance technicians. They're jack of all trade types who hop into plows when the white stuff starts falling.

We recommend potential plow drivers have some experience with a CDL license and a decent knowledge of machinery. Most importantly, though, drivers need a calm demeanor. Driving snowplows is tense business. The weather, the control of heavy machinery  and other drivers on the snowy roadway all account for a lot of stress. Individuals that remain calm under pressure make the best drivers.

If you're interested in applying for a maintenance technician job, keep an eye on our job listings for openings.