WINTER MAINTENANCE: It’s not sticking

Oct. 1, 2010

The grades are in on how well state Strategic Highway Safety Plans (SHSPs) incorporate snow and ice control, a proven highway-safety countermeasure—and they show a dramatic need for improvement.


Some state plans, however, stand as shining examples, beacons for others seeking to integrate their safety plan with ongoing programs to perform snow and ice control.


The grades are in on how well state Strategic Highway Safety Plans (SHSPs) incorporate snow and ice control, a proven highway-safety countermeasure—and they show a dramatic need for improvement.

Some state plans, however, stand as shining examples, beacons for others seeking to integrate their safety plan with ongoing programs to perform snow and ice control.

The Washington State DOT, for example, points to “increasingly remote occasions of road and pass closures” as testament to its commitment to provide safe and passable roads throughout the year.

“Our operators, supervisors and managers recognize the importance of snow and ice operations in achieving the goals of the ­WSDOT safety mission,” explained Monty Mills, WSDOT maintenance and operations branch manager.

“Weather conditions contribute to highway traffic accidents,” agreed South Dakota DOT Director of Operations Greg Fuller. “For that reason, winter maintenance on our highways is an extremely high priority at SDDOT.”

The District of Columbia is even more explicit. D.C.’s Emergency Response and Snow Manager Robert L. Marsili Jr. provided input to the SHSP, noting the safety impacts of “improving surface treatments” and “maintaining skid-resistant pavement surfaces.” More states should emulate their example.

Slushy effort

Remedial attention is urgently needed. Although winter maintenance has no federal program like the No Child Left Behind promotion of improved secondary education, the vital work of our nation’s snow fighters clearly needs a push to improve its integration into state safety planning.

The Salt Institute surveyed 39 states with significant snowfall, examining the federally mandated state SHSP for each. Some of the plans are currently being revised; that offers hope for improvement.

Of these 39 state SHSPs, nearly two-thirds (23) failed to include winter maintenance among their safety priorities. They earned an F grade. Some of these states are renowned for the excellence of their snow and ice programs, and they are missing an opportunity for synergy with other state roadway safety programs.

Another seven barely escaped with D grades by including some reference to the safety impact of snow- and ice-covered roadways, but failing to include them among their safety priorities. Examples would include concerns that pavement markers be able to withstand snowplowing damage—a component of the SHSPs of Delaware, Illinois, Nevada, Oklahoma and Vermont. Massachusetts and Michigan formally recognized the safety threat of “icy/snowy/slushy roads” and that crash data confirm that “winter weather was a huge cause of the [crash incidence] increase,” but neither identified winter maintenance as part of its safety program.

North Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming received grades of C. North Dakota considers slippery roads a problem for intersection safety and run-off-the-road crashes. “Snow removal at intersections to . . . improve the stopping ability at intersections during winter months” is part of their SHSP.

Wisconsin’s SHSP focuses more on promoting safe winter driving, though it points out that 21% of the state’s fatalities are on snow/ice/slush/wet roads—more than half of those on high-speed interstate highways. Overall, however, it ranked winter roads a lower priority and did not reference the state’s excellent winter-maintenance program.

Wyoming identifies “blowing snow, icy roads and high winds” as a component of its freight-safety priority, but the countermeasure strategies do not include snow fighting. The problem of visibility due to wind “coupled with snow” results in drivers traversing safe pavement to “a snow packed road” with no visible clues; again, restoring a safe pavement condition is unmentioned. This is the pattern for wind-driven snowdrifts and the need to use explosives to disrupt “snow avalanches [which] continue to be a threat in some areas.”

Only one state earned a B grade: Minnesota. Minnesota’s SHSP notes the importance of “weather condition” including “snow/sleet/freezing rain” and “blowing sand/dust/snow or severe winds,” and contains a separate “Safety Strategy” for “Roadway Maintenance,” which explicitly includes “winter storm maintenance (pre-treating and increasing number of snow plows).”

A’s all around

Five states won excellent A grades (one A?, three solid A’s and one valedictorian A+). Some were surprises, but clearly these DOTs understand the linkage of winter roadway maintenance to their comprehensive state highway safety programs. They are models.

The A? was awarded to Alaska. Alaska’s SHSP explains, “From 2001 to 2005, there were more traffic collisions in the winter than in any other season. During this period, there were 48 percent more collisions in January, February, and December (23,131 collisions) than in the summer months of June, July, and August (15,578 collisions) . . . there are more collisions in the winter on a per mile driven basis [though the fatality rate is lower].”

The SHSP declares a “need to identify locations of greatest need and winter crash locations. Evaluate pedestrian, bicycle, and driver interactions during and after snow events to determine safety needs.” In this it adopts a spatial rather than temporal perspective, failing to examine snow-fighting effectiveness. The minus sign after its A derives from the emphasis on pedestrians and bicyclists with relatively less attention being given to road users, the major opportunity to improve roadway safety.

Three A grades were well-earned by Montana, South Dakota and the District of Columbia, where policy-makers clearly “get it” when it comes to the need to improve winter roadway maintenance as a safety countermeasure.

Montana’s SHSP lists the Montana Department of Transportation’s maintenance division as a “current safety partner.” MDOT’s Maintenance Division snow fighters, the SHSP explains, contribute to the safety program by providing “winter maintenance (anti-icing, deicing, spraying, plowing and sanding), management of the Road-Weather Information System).”

MDOT traffic and safety engineer Duane Williams notes his department’s commitment is to “involve the maintenance staff in working to address safety. We recognize that wet, snowy and icy road conditions contribute to many crashes.” An “emphasis area” of the SHSP—emergency services delivery—recognizes that “severe weather conditions during winter months” impair delivery of emergency medical services.

South Dakota’s SHSP may be even better. It explicitly recognizes snow fighting’s safety benefits through the DOT’s adoption of a winter operations maintenance decision support system. The SHSP states: “The ongoing deployment of a Maintenance Decision Support System (MDSS) should have safety, environmental and logistical benefits. The MDSS will use environmental sensor stations and sensors embedded in pavements to transmit weather and road condition information to maintenance crews. DOT personnel will use the MDSS for winter maintenance recommendations, such as when to send snowplows out, what snow and ice control treatments to use, and the rate treatments should be applied.”

SDDOT Director of Operations Greg Fuller explained that using MDSS “incorporates new technology in guiding our winter maintenance efforts. This technology enhances winter maintenance by helping maintenance workers use the right maintenance methods at the right time in an effort to keep the highways safe.”

The plan also touts South Dakota’s 5-1-1 road weather information system, which is “heavily used, especially during winter weather events. The 5-1-1 service helps travelers decide whether or not to set out on winter roads.” Fuller elaborated: “The use of the 5-1-1 road weather information phone number and the websites has greatly increased our ability to communicate this important information to travelers.”

Most discussions of snow fighting in the District of Columbia focus on the enormous economic costs incurred when inadequate snow and ice removal force closure of the federal government and paralyze the metro economy. But D.C. redeems itself with its SHSP, which incorporates an exemplary recognition of the link of winter roadway operations to the District’s comprehensive traffic-safety program.

The District formally prioritizes its efforts to “improve surface treatments” to maintain “skid-resistant pavement surfaces” with “skid numbers (i.e., coefficient of friction) above 30.” Specifically, the plan identifies as problematic “Snow or ice covered pavement – in locations where snow or ice/crash ratio of 0.18 or greater exists, provide information to maintenance personnel for enhance snow-plowing operations during the winter months.”

This roadway operations performance metric is worthy of broad emulation. D.C.’s Robert Marsili noted that the SHSP not only recognizes the link between effective snow fighting and safe roads, but goes further, promising further improvements to snow fighting.

“We are continuing to advance our liquid pretreatment plans to include more residential areas,” Marsili explained. “During the months of January and February, our plan is to spray once a week in specific areas to minimize any possible icing conditions and to provide safer road surfaces during those times for the public. This is still being tested and so far our evaluations have shown that cleanup efforts during typical snow events in D.C. are easier and roadways seem to be restored to bare pavement sooner than if not pretreated with liquids and brine.”

Marsili said the key to winter road safety is his department’s use of anti-icing, concluding, “The anti-icing strategies being utilized by DDOT are reducing accidents, salt usage, corrosion and providing a better level of service for all motorists traveling in the District.”

An A+ grade goes to the best state SHSP for recognizing the role of winter maintenance to delivering safe highways. It is the SHSP of the Washington State DOT. WSDOT includes winter maintenance among its priority efforts to reduce run-off-the-road crashes, intersection-related collisions and opposite-direction multivehicle collisions.

WSDOT’s Target Zero plan explicitly notes the nexus of winter maintenance/snow and ice control and WSDOT’s provision of safe winter roads for its citizen drivers.

WSDOT’s Monty Mills noted, “Inclusion of this program in the SHSP is a recognition of the importance of wintertime operations to overall WSDOT goals to include safety. Our goal is to provide mobility for the cautious traveler to the best of our ability. Each year, we update our snow and ice plan that provides WSDOT maintenance crews the guidance and direction to assist in safe, efficient and consistent operations.”

Not only does the WSDOT SHSP recognize the winter maintenance/safe roadways nexus, but the SHSP explicitly anticipates further improving the safety of winter roads. Under “Strategies to reduce run-off-road crashes,” the plan aims to “improve the pavement surface and/or establish better maintenance practices in regard to wet pavements and snow and ice control.” Under “Strategies to reduce intersection-related collisions,” the SHSP declares its intent to “improve the pavement surface and/or establish better maintenance practices in regard to snow and ice control.”

And, under “Strategies to reduce opposite direction multi-vehicle collisions,” WSDOT vows to “improve maintenance practices in regard to snow and ice control.” Mills explained that “The WSDOT snow and ice program is continuously upgraded with equipment and technology improvements, material selection and application, training of personnel in advanced techniques and management of snow and ice functions.” He offered as a specific example “implementation of AVL/GPS in all plows and applicator equipment” (currently about one-third of the snow-fighting fleet is AVL/GPS-equipped). “This will allow us to have real-time information on all winter activities and the ability to review and improve practices and to track applications and weather data.”

He noted, “WSDOT is constantly testing new formulations of salt brine and other products in an effort to identify the most effective application techniques for all winter events. We use liquid corrosion-inhibited NaCl, CaCl or MgCl in combination with solid salt to treat roads throughout the state.”

And, finally, WSDOT is upgrading its snow-fighting equipment as part of its SHSP, having already tested a variety of material-delivery equipment to include front and rear spreaders, Schmidt hoppers, Henderson hoppers, Monroe slurry machines, homemade slurry machines and a variety of liquid applicators.

No snow left behind

This report card is important because, like the federal No Child Left Behind initiative in education, stretching scarce tax dollars and delivering value can have life-changing consequences. Synergy between safety advocates and those responsible for operations and maintenance will strengthen not only these two transportation functions, but help each one better achieve its mission.

Safety advocates have been paid loud lip service and shunted off to narrow categorical “safety program” grant programs. Operations, like snow and ice control, are asked to squeeze out service matching ever-rising public expectations for safe winter roads—with frozen or reduced budgets. Together they can make sure that our roads operate more safely by emphasizing the obvious fact that we remove snow and ice from our roads to keep people alive.

Public education campaigns will help these new intra-agency partners hammer home the need to prioritize resources for winter maintenance and other efforts to help our roadways deliver safe passage for highway users.

About The Author: Hanneman is president emeritus of the Salt Institute.

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