RIGBY — With hazardous winter driving conditions arriving in eastern Idaho, the Idaho Transportation Department hosted an informational event Friday on safe driving practices among snowplow vehicles.
J.R. Grotjohn, an ITD maintenance foreman, spoke about what snowplows do and how to avoid accidents when encountering them on the road.
ITD snowplows do two things: they clear snow from the roads and they lay down salt and other chemicals to improve vehicle traction.
Grotjohn said snowplows are deployed as soon as snowflakes begin to fall. The department also takes preventative measures, such as dropping salt brine to keep snow from sticking to the roads.
“I guarantee, if there’s weather, we’re out there,” Grotjohn said.
A standard ITD snowplow — such as a Mack Granite 10-wheel dump truck — is equipped with a a plow in the front (and sometimes on the sides) and a spreader on the back to lay down chemicals. Often, the trucks plow snow and drop chemicals at the same time.
Grotjohn said accidents with snowplows happen for three reasons. First, visibility is reduced around a plow as it kicks up snow.
“It kind of drowns out the visibility around it,” he said. “And we have varying types of snowplows. Some just have a front plow, some have a wing on either side. You can’t see those attachments. You can’t see what’s going on around it.”
The second hazard is the product that’s dropped from the plow, which can cause vehicle damage if a driver is following the plow too closely.
And thirdly, snowplow operators have low visibility as they’re driving.
“It’s hard to see in front of you and, with the snow that’s kicking up, it’s hard to see behind and along the sides,” Grotjohn said. “So we’re not always sure where traffic is as we’re operating. That can prove hazardous, to both the operator and the motoring public.”
These hazards typically cause two types of accidents, namely driving off the road due to low visibility and snowplow collisions.
Grotjohn said there was a snowplow collision last week near Ashton. A driver collided with a snowplow’s side attachment as they were trying to pass.
“The driver didn’t see (the attachment) and they ended up knocking it off the truck,” he said. “Put the truck out of commission. Thankfully, nobody was hurt but it was that reduced visibility condition that led to that accident.”
Grotjohn recommends that drivers be extra defensive around snowplows.
“Be aware of what’s around you, be aware of your situation, be engaged in driving,” he said. “We do ask, and it helps a lot, to increase your following distance behind our plows. Wait for a safe opportunity to pass, whether the plow pulls off the road or you are confident in the visibility.”
Grotjohn recommends a 10-car following distance behind snowplows and, if possible, to stay behind the plow, because that’s the safest place to drive. Wait until the snowplow pulls off the road or until you’re confident in visibility to make a pass.
“But as a general rule, I would wait,” Grotjohn said. “Follow the plow. Obviously, they’re clearing off the bad stuff, they’re putting down good stuff for you to get grip. That’s a good reason for you to stay behind them.”