Slow Down and Back Off
/ Author: Andre van Heerden
/ Categories: Guide magazine, Locals, Local 63 /
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Slow Down and Back Off

Public service announcements are often easy to ignore. But when they deal with huge pieces of machinery clearing ice- and snow-covered roads, it’s time to pay attention

By André van Heerden

LOCAL 63 MEMBERS DAVID HORST and Erin Vanderhoek bring a human face—and a real passion for safe roads—to a recent public service announcement.

Local 63 and Ledcor Highway Maintenance are running a safety campaign to support snowplow drivers in northern Alberta. The campaign encourages drivers to be safe around snowplows—most of all for their own safety as well as for the safety of the operators.

It sounds like an obvious message, but every year accidents and near misses happen that could have been avoided. The goal of the public service announcement isn’t just to tell people to drive safely during winter driving conditions but to know that there are real people driving the trucks who have families of their own who also want to get home safely.

Like many other drivers, I sometimes get frustrated being stuck behind a snowplow travelling half the speed limit. Are they holding me up on purpose?

I spent some time with David and Erin as we filmed the public safety announcement, and it was an eye-opening experience. It turns out there are very good reasons for the speed they travel. There’s a lot more to plowing the roads and a lot more going on in that snowplow than people realize.

Climbing up into the cab of the truck, I could see that operating a snowplow isn’t just as simple as driving a big vehicle. The cab feels a bit like the cockpit of a spaceship and comes complete with a joystick and computer screen and lots of lights and switches.

Speaking with David and Erin, I learned just how challenging their jobs can be. David is the highway maintenance foreman for Ledcor in Carrot Creek in central Alberta, about 41 kilometres east of Edson and 160 kilometres west of Edmonton. Erin is David’s lead-hand snowplow operator. The highways they are responsible for run about 180 kilometres one way.

David’s interest and love of his job runs in the family. His dad has been a snowplow operator for over 18 years, he has a cousin who is also a foreman, and another cousin and an uncle who are mechanics with Ledcor.

Erin had some previous experience working with big equipment and saw a job posting at Ledcor and applied. After a lot of training and long hours, she’s come to love the job as well.

During the making of the public service announcement with David and Erin, I saw not only that they have a challenging job to do but that they also have a great love for it. Just like someone might take pride in making a perfect weld, expertly wiring a room, or providing exceptional care to an elderly person in a nursing home, snowplow operators take real pride in keeping the roads clear, dry, and safe for the travelling public.

I asked David and Erin to share some of the challenges of being a snowplow operator, their passion for the job, and what we as fellow drivers on the road need to pay attention to when we see a snowplow’s flashing lights ahead.

What do you like most about your job?

Erin: I like plowing snow, knowing that I’m making a difference, that we’re making roads safer for the public, that the roads are bare and traffic’s moving at speed again. That to me is a good job.

David: I like the fact that I am doing my part to help my family and friends travel safely on our roads and making sure everything is safe for the public so everybody’s families get home safely.

What does your family think about what you do for your work?

David: My family thinks it’s pretty cool that I’m out there driving a big flashy truck that’s all lit up at night and that I’m pushing all the snow off the highway. My two daughters aren’t that interested, but Ryker, my five-year-old son, loves it. He thinks trucks are the coolest thing in the world, and he wants to be an operator too when he’s older.

Erin: I have two daughters, and I brought along my older one to ride with me for bring-a-student-to-work day at school. She thought it was pretty exciting and a little bit scary, but overall what she took back from that day was that my job can be stressful and great all at the same time. It was interesting to hear her perspective.

If you’re telling someone about driving a snowplow, what do you think they may not know about it?

David: That our maximum speed when sanding is 50 kilometres per hour and 70 when plowing, if permitted by road conditions. If we go any faster, our salt and sand just blows right off into the ditch. We’ll break signs and guardrails. I know the public gets quite frustrated with us that we’re going slow and taking up their time, but we can’t go any faster.

What’s difficult about driving a snowplow?

David: There’s a lot going on in the cab that we need to pay attention to. We’re manually adjusting the salt and sand that’s coming out and the speed. We have to constantly monitor traffic so we’re not blasting people. Pushing heavier snow can actually move the truck in the lane, so we need to have our wits about us constantly when plowing. We need to watch everything that’s going on. Someone might be riding a snowmobile in the ditch and we could blow them off their machine. We have to watch out for kids tobogganing, dogs running, and hidden vehicles.

Erin: We have lots of operations going on: maneuvering the wings, lifting the plow, turning the sander on and off, moving mirrors—all while paying attention to the public, drivers on the road, bridges, animals, and other road hazards. It’s not a sit back and relax type of job. We’re in tune all the time. We’re constantly looking around, constantly pushing buttons while watching our mirrors and trying to stay straight and narrow on the road all at the same time.

What’s the worst type of weather?

David: Freezing rain, 100 percent. It’s a skating rink for everybody. We put traction under our wheels but sometimes we can’t put on enough. Lots of people don’t slow down. They figure the roads are wet and because they were behind us and they have traction, they get in front of us and spin out.

Have you had any scary moments?

David: I had a vehicle come up really fast behind me. I thought he was going to hit me but he missed and spun out right in front of me. He ended up in the ditch pointing back at me as I was coming toward him. It was a close call.

Erin: Last year, we had a snow event. It went from sunny and -2°C and looking like nothing was coming to rain and snow falling. By the time we got on the highways, it had started to freeze and made rumble strips out of the slush. Our trucks could barely stay stable on the road.

It turned into a full-out snowstorm and snowed about a foot in three hours. The snow had gotten so bad that I couldn’t see very well so I pulled over. I got out of my vehicle to walk around to make sure my lights were clear. That’s when I noticed I had about 20 other vehicles pulled over behind me. They were following me and I couldn’t see them. I had no idea that they were there.

Thankfully, they could see me and had stopped, but it was dangerous because now we were all stopped on the highway. I had to get up and going because they were relying on me to clear them a path.

When you see people piling up coming close behind you, if you could speak to them, what would you say?

David: We’re doing our job out here, trying to make the roads safe for travel. We’re not trying to inconvenience you. Slow down when you see our lights. You can see them from quite a ways away. We’re lit up like a Christmas tree on the highway. Be cautious when you’re going by a plow truck.

Erin: Have patience; take your time on the roads. We have protocols to follow and safety is of utmost importance not only for the public, but for ourselves. We’re never in a rush to do anything, and I would tell them the same thing—don’t be in a rush. Slow down and back off. It’s not easy to see you when we’re in the snowplow because we’re making a snow plume behind us. Eventually, we can’t see you at all and that’s not good for you or for us.

Why is it dangerous to pass a snowplow?

David: Even with our blade angled toward the ditch, some snow will come off the other side in heavy snow, and it can push your car and throw you into a spin. Or it could be a situation like freezing rain where I’m putting salt and sand on the highway and behind us it’s melting nicely and there’s traction. But in front of us, it’s really slippery because we haven’t been there yet.

How do you prepare for a big storm?

David: We have a group meeting about it with everyone there. We plan what mixtures we’ll put out and prepare everyone a couple of days before the storm hits.

We like to do 12 hours on per shift because we’re running night and day from October to March. But sometimes storms come out of nowhere. We’ll get a call from an operator, “I just popped over a hill and there’s six inches of snow.” So we start deploying the trucks and it gets hard on the operators and on us making phone calls all hours of the day calling them out after they’ve only slept for a few hours. We have to switch them out so they can rest.

Sometimes, the mixtures are not working, so we go back to the drawing board and put something else out on the road. Just because something worked during the last storm doesn’t mean it’s going to work for the next one.

It’s a little more than just throw some salt and sand down at it and watch it disappear. Temperatures, dew points, and traffic—they all have an impact. Traffic is our best friend when it’s between -10°C and 5°C. It can take just as much off as we do. But colder temperatures create hard-packed snow, and that’s a different ballgame trying to get it off the road.

What makes you happy about your job?

David: There’s something relaxing about watching the snow come off your blade, watching a curl come off and shoot out to the trees.

Erin: When it’s been snowing quite a bit and I see the snow fly from the plow, and then I look behind and see the bare pavement, it’s exhilarating. Sometimes, I can’t wait to get out there and see the snow fly off the plow. 

De-Icing Roads

De-icers melt or prevent the formation of ice by lowering the freezing point of water. They come in three main types:

1. Chlorides – The most common de-icers are chloride (salt) based, which are effective and inexpensive.

– Sodium chloride is the number one de-icer in the US and Canada and is the cheapest. Its lowest melting temperature is -9°C.

– Magnesium chloride is often added to sodium chloride. Its lowest melting temperature is -23°C.

– Calcium chloride is often added to sodium chloride. Its lowest melting temperature is -29°C.

2. Acetates – Acetate-based de-icers are often used where chloride de-icers are limited. A higher volume of acetates are needed than salt to achieve the same effect, and they do not perform as well below -5°C during heavy snowfall or freezing rain.

– Calcium-magnesium acetate is the most common acetate de-icer. Its lowest melting temperature is -6°C.

– Potassium acetate has the lowest practical melting temperature at -26°C.

3. Carbohydrates – Carbohydate-based de-icers are made from the fermentation of grain or processing sugars, such as cane or beet sugar. They do not aid in melting snow, but can be mixed with other de-icers to reduce the freezing point of ice further than salt and can help salt stick to the road. They are noncorrosive and environmentally friendly.


CLAC Members Who Help Keep Our Roads Safe and Clear

In Alberta and BC, CLAC members are working hard to keep our roads clear and safe this winter.

– 160 Local 63 members employed by Ledcor Highways Ltd. maintain the roads in central and northern Alberta.

– 15 Local 68 members employed by AEL, A Division of Emcon Services Inc., maintain roads in west Kelowna, BC.

Winter Driving for Cool Canadians

It’s cold. It’s snowing. It’s icy. We should probably all just hibernate, but who has time for that? Here are some driving tips to keep you, your fellow commuters, and snowplow operators safe.

12 Winter Driving Safety Tips

  1. Install winter tires. Tires with a three-peaked mountain and snowflake symbol provide better traction and stopping performance than all-season tires in winter conditions.
  2. Top up the washer fluid and keep extra in the car. Make sure your wipers are in good shape.
  3. Carry an emergency kit, including extra clothing and footwear, rags, salt/sand/kitty litter, flashlight, candle in a tin, waterproof matches, shovel, nonperishable food, ice scraper/brush, first-aid kit, and booster cables.
  4. Keep your fuel tank at least half full.
  5. Turn your full lights on (headlights and taillights) so other vehicles can see you.
  6. Check the weather and plan your route. Stay home if it’s bad outside.
  7. Slow down. Give yourself lots of time and don’t rush.
  8. Practice a safe following distance—at least four seconds between vehicles.
  9. Go easy on the gas and brake, and steer smoothly to avoid skidding. If you start to skid, don’t oversteer. Ease off the brake or gas.
  10. Watch out for black ice—especially in shaded areas and on bridges and overpasses—and roads that appear wet but are actually icy.
  11. Give snowplows lots of space—about 10 car lengths. Flying snow, salt, and grit can cause poor visibility and damage your car. And if you are too close, the operator may not see you.
  12. Don’t try to pass snowplows. They may have blades out on either side that you can’t see. They may be part of a convoy that is clearing multiple lanes. Never pass a plow on the right—that’s where the snow goes.


Driving Fatalities and Injuries

As cars have become safer, injuries and deaths due to vehicle collisions have been dropping—even as vehicle usage has gone up.

Year       Fatalities         Injuries Licensed Drivers

2000       2,904     222,848            20,593,000

2010       2,238     172,081            23,541,000

2017       1,841     154,886            26,004,000

Did You Know?

More fatalities occur during the summer months than the winter months, on average. Why?

– More people are on the roads travelling for vacation.

– More parties lead to increased drinking and driving.

– Drivers tend to be more cautious during the winter.

Canadian Snowhow

Hate the pile of snow left behind at the end of your driveway by snowplows? You can thank your fellow Canadians for making the task easier. The first snow-clearing machine was patented in 1869 by J. W. Elliot from Toronto, although it was never built. In 1884, Orange Jull, from Orangeville, Ontario, had a self-propelled snow-clearing machine built, but it wasn’t very effective. Then in 1894, Arthur Sicard developed the concept for a snowblower, after being inspired by a grain thresher. It took him until 1925 to build the first successful prototype. He founded the company Sicard Industries, and by 1927 was supplying snowblowers to remove snow from roads in Outremont, Quebec. His snowblower was a truck with a scoop and a snow-thrower chute featuring a separate motor to eject the snow. It was large and very expensive. The first human-powered snowblower was built in 1952 by Toro—another Canadian company.


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