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Safe winter trucking: Dealing with snow plows, road closures

The keys to safe winter driving are patience and planning.

Winter weather conditions can challenge any professional truck driver and any motor carrier. Shipper expectations of on-time delivery and driver hours-of-service limitations do battle with slower speeds, reduced visibility and deteriorating road conditions.

The keys to safe winter driving are patience and planning.

Patience means allowing more time. Accepting that road speeds will be lower. Not taking risks to make up lost time. Watching for drivers who do not know how to handle winter road conditions. Leaving more space ahead and behind the truck, because stopping distances increase on wet and icy pavements. And, yes, helping the customer understand that a safe arrival is your primary goal.

Planning means having alternatives ready when winter conditions require a different course of action. Knowing the alternate routes that will safely reach your destination. Researching in advance other exits if your usual one is blocked by drifting snow or other road hazards. Having substitute parking locations in mind if your planned stop is full.

Patience and planning can easily be put to the test in winter. Localized conditions may not appear on your company’s weather report or on your cell phone weather app, and the conditions themselves can change quickly. Two challenges in particular that you may face are snow plows and unplanned winter road closures.

Snow plows

Truck drivers and motor carriers committed to safety know that commercial motor vehicle law enforcement share the same goal. They have one other “official” friend on the road committed to their safety – the snow plow driver. Snow plow drivers by definition work in the worst winter conditions, with the most limited visibility. Give them space, distance, and, most of all, patience to do their job.

The space is needed because snow plows often are rigged with “wing” blades, extending 10-12 feet – the equivalent of a full traffic lane – to the side. Those blades often have blinking warning lights at their tips, but in blowing snow conditions those warning lights may be obscured. The snow plow may also be longer than anticipated, as front blades extend ahead of the cab.

Snow plows deserve distance, as well. The snow they kick up can blind vehicles following too close. The plowing can also eject pieces of ice, which can crack windshields. Many snow plows or trucks accompanying the plow lay down sand or deicer. Follow too close and those substances may blur your windows and mirrors.

Patience is always a virtue in winter driving. With a snow plow ahead, patience will be rewarded. Snow plows typically travel at about 35 mph to efficiently move the snow. Often they work in teams, with other plows or trucks, taking one section of a road at a time. So, you won’t be delayed too long in letting the plow or team finish its road section. Passing a snow plow is not generally recommended. But if you are tempted to pass, assess the passing lane conditions, allow room for the plow’s “wing” blades, and consider that you and any oncoming traffic may be dealing with obscured visibility.

Unplanned winter road closures

You or your dispatcher have already selected a safe road in winter and considered alternate routes should driving conditions change. But, again, localized winter conditions may be drastically — different drifting snow, icy bridges, snow plow activity and traffic accidents – and may cause unforeseen road closures.

Slow down when you see flashing lights ahead. Follow the directions of road crews and law enforcement. Watch for variable message signs and listen to local radio for road advisories.  When you can safely pull off the road, contact your company for further directions.

Official government road condition reports can be found on the 511 network, available by phone and online in 35 participating states – but only call or search when parked off the highway and in a safe location.

Patience and planning are your keys to safe winter driving. Snow plows and road closures are there to keep you out of unsafe conditions. Respect them, and yourself, by driving safely in the winter.

Steve Vaughn is national director of field operations for HELP Inc., the provider of the truck weigh station bypass system PrePass as well as toll payment and trucking data visualization technology. He previously served with the California Highway Patrol and is a past president of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance.

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