Winter warning: Mind the plow


December 18, 2006|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Frank Harris had seen a lot of stupidity in his 20 years as a long-distance trucker, but nothing prepared him for the depths of driver idiocy he has encountered in his most recent job: State Highway Administration snowplow operator.

Many Maryland drivers, he said, just can't bear to be behind a plow.

"They try to pass us while we're plowing the road," said Harris, who took part in a recent news conference at the SHA's Hanover control center. "We're not going as fast as they want us to go."

The result, he said, is that a typical Maryland snowstorm will bring 10 to 15 accidents involving a plow and another vehicle.

It's strange. You'd think that following a plow would be the ideal place to be in a snowstorm. The pavement behind them would be the clearest on the highway. It would be as if you were a running back with a 350-pound All-Pro offensive lineman leading the way for you.

But no. Snowplows don't go 65 mph. They operate at 25 to 30 mph. So for many drivers it's imperative to get by them as fast as possible -- to the left, to the right, however.

Some even try to go through them.

You see, when snowplow drivers are out in force trying to clear a road such as I-95 or the Beltway, they often operate in teams -- forming what they call a "plow train." They are staggered from lane to lane, so that the lead plow in the far-left lane pushes the snow to the trailing plow in the next lane to the right, which pushes it off to the next trailing plow and so on until the snow is on the shoulder.

The problem comes when some moron -- excuse me, judgment-impaired individual -- tries to weave through the narrow gaps between snowplows.

"We have people who try to get into the middle of the train and break the train up," said Harris, 40, who works out of the SHA's Laurel shop. "Sometimes they get entangled within the trucks."

This, veteran snowplow drivers say, is not a wise course of action. Their humongous plows, they say, will not stop on a dime. They are, however, quite capable of stopping on a Hummer.

This can lead to unfortunate consequences. Not so much the extinction of the motorist trying to run the gap -- that's a trifling loss to the gene pool. But untangling the mess can impede the clearing of the highway for drivers who deserve to reproduce.

Snowplow drivers say the perpetrators of such stupid road tricks are almost always driving SUVs. Many SUV drivers, they say, like to go out before the plows can clear the road and end up spinning out and creating obstructions.

"They want to use their four-wheel drive and show off," Harris said.

This column cannot be expected to change the behavior of drivers who would attempt such a maneuver. Clearly, their mothers, fathers, driving instructors and probably the police have tried and failed to penetrate their skulls. All we can hope is that our children don't marry such folks.

But Harris and other SHA employees said they'd like to pass along some tips to those who are capable of learning.

Harris said the plow trucks are also spreading salt to keep the roads clear. A car following too close can be damaged by the salt spray, he said.

"It is in your best interests to stay several hundred feet behind and take advantage" of the clear road, said SHA spokesman David Buck.

Motorists who have never sat in the driver's seat of a big snowplow might also be surprised at the limited sight lines and complicated controls.

There is no rearview mirror, and the driver has to rely on side-view mirrors to see anything behind. From the controls, the driver can only see part of the left side of the plow, and when snow is deep, the entire plow is covered. Two bright pink poles extend up from the plow blade to give the driver some sense of where it meets the road.

If the plows appear to be slow, there's a reason. In addition to driving, the operators have to manipulate six plow controls and manage the flow of salt. There is no helper in the passenger seat. So these hardworking folks, who put in brutal hours during major snowstorms, deserve a little patience, appreciation and fewer vehicles tailgating them.

Motorists pay taxes to keep roads clear and deserve an efficient snow-removal process. But miracles aren't in the job descriptions of highway workers -- whether state or county workers or private contractors.

Valerie Burnette Edgar, an SHA spokeswoman, said the agency's business plan calls for major roads to be cleared four hours after the snow stops. That's not four hours after the first flake falls.

Those who are disposed to complain should also try to make sure they're griping to the right people. Don't call the SHA if your cul-de-sac in Sprawlsville Acres isn't cleared instantly. State workers are busy clearing the interstates, U.S. highways and major state highways. County and municipal highway departments clear smaller roads.

When winter storms strike, information on the condition of state roads can be found at In Baltimore, you can request snow removal for a specific address at Outside Baltimore, most of the county Web sites offer little up-to-date information and no interactive capability. Just go back to bed.

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