Wednesday, November 18, 2020

We’re working hard keeping roads open this winter during the pandemic, but we need your help

By Barbara LaBoe

Winter may not officially start until mid-December, but winter weather has certainly arrived in our state and our crews are once again working hard to pre-treat and clear roads.

But as with many things in 2020, they're also adjusting to a new normal, including additional safety equipment and procedures. We've been working hard to prepare for a COVID-19 winter, but this year more than ever we also need the public's help.
Extra COVID-19 safety precautions may mean more time between
 shift changes before our plows get back on the highways during storms.

To be clear, we're still staffing around the clock to prepare for and respond to storms. Our crews take pride in the job they do, day in and day out, to keep people and freight moving. But due to the pandemic, our levels of service may be affected this year, especially during heavy or long-lasting storms.

For example, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, we must sanitize equipment such as plows and other machines between each shift, lengthening shift change times. We can call crews in early during heavy storms, but physical distancing requirements also mean we must carefully time that this year to avoid excess crowding in the maintenance sheds. We also are keeping a frugal eye on overtime and materials to be good financial stewards during statewide budget reductions. And, due to hiring freezes and other reductions, hiring and training temporary winter crews started later this year and we have fewer overall Maintenance workers who can backfill crews during long storms or if several of our crew members get sick.
While our crews are still working 24/7 during storms, new physically distancing requirements
 and other safety protocols means shift changes must be timed well to avoid overcrowding.

What does this mean for travelers?
  • Roads or passes may close sooner than they normally would during storms. 
  • Closures may last longer as leaner crews will need more time to complete treating and clearing. We know closures are frustrating, but we must be sure our crews can work safely and that all the needed steps have taken place before we reopen a road to travelers. Safety remains our priority.
  • Lower priority roads may not be cleared as often as crews focus on the more heavily traveled high priority roads in their area.
  • Tire chains may be required more frequently. It's possible that chains will be required more often than a "normal" winter as leaner crews may not be able to keep roads to bare and wet conditions. 
As with any winter, location and severity of a given storm also play a role in response. But we want everyone to be prepared given the extra challenges this year.

Prioritizing which routes are plowed first and most often – like here on I-90 in Spokane –
will be even more important this winter.

So, how can you help? Be prepared for winter travel and stay informed both before and throughout your travel. Often, pass closures are due to collisions or slide-offs caused by drivers going too fast or not having proper winter travel equipment. Once a crash happens on a pass, for example, the entire road may have to be closed to allow tow trucks and others to reach the area. So one driver going too fast or failing to install chains can close an entire pass for thousands of travelers. That's why we need everyone's help to keep traffic moving.
Pass closures could take longer to clear this winter so it's vital that everyone be prepared
 for unexpected delays or closures.

What can you do?

  • Be prepared for possible delays and ensure you carry winter travel gear.
  • Stay informed. It's even more important to check weather and conditions before you leave and during travel – never check from behind the wheel. Use our travel alerts and many tools and social media accounts and the 511 phone system to keep informed of conditions and any possible closures or alerts.
  • Carry chains and know how to install them. Requiring chains allows us to keep moving during storms rather than closing a pass or roadway. If you haven't before, look into getting chains or the traction alternatives recommended for your vehicle. And practice putting them on at home, so you know how to do it if they're ever required.
  • Carry extra masks and hand sanitizer. Be prepared for unexpected delays and possibly needing to make unplanned stops or getting assistance such as towing. You'll want to be sure to stay safe in these interactions.
  • Expect less than ideal conditions.  Drive assuming snow and ice conditions. Even when it appears wet, it might be black ice. Reduce speeds and leave more space between vehicles.
  • Consider altering travel plans during heavy storms. If you're unsure about your winter driving ability or your vehicle's equipment, there's no shame in delaying or altering your travel plans.

Our crews have been and will continue working around the clock to keep traffic moving this winter. We thank you in advance for your patience during closures and ask all travelers to do all they can to help keep traffic moving. We want everyone to get where they're going and make it home safe and sound at the end of each day.