Winter warriors make roadways safer and keep us moving

It’s fall. It’s getting colder, the leaves are falling and winter is looming. Most likely, you haven’t given much thought to the road crews who are working this fall, preparing equipment and resources in order to keep roads clear and safe this winter.

Keeping the roads clear and traffic flowing when the snow is falling requires an enormous effort. It takes a lot of equipment – trucks, snow plows, snow blowers and salt spreaders. It also takes a good number of dedicated, highly skilled people to drive, maintain and schedule the equipment. And by definition, much of their work comes in the worst weather, so snow fighters can spend long hours behind the wheel in extremely challenging conditions.

“The folks who drive the plows and spread the salt truly are winter warriors,” says Jerry Poe of North American Salt Company, one of the key companies that provide salt to highway transportation departments. Poe, director of research and development for the Overland Park, Kan.-based company, says snow fighters have a tough, important job. “It’s business-as-usual for snow fighters to work throughout the night to get roads clear before the rush hour, and to work long hours over many days.”

The safety issues provided by highway departments that clear the roads are dramatic. Drivers face far greater risks of a crash when driving in a snowstorm than when under the influence of alcohol or drugs, according to the Salt Institute. In fact, studies by the Roadway Safety Foundation say that icy, slushy pavements cause 115,000 injuries and more than 1,000 deaths on America’s highways every year. Plus, those figures do not reflect the additional toll when snow and ice keep ambulances and fire trucks from responding quickly.

Most transportation departments depend on salt to clear roads because no other product matches its combination of cost and effectiveness. Salt works by lowering the freezing point of water, slowing the ability for snow to turn into ice once it hits the salted road surface. Salt also breaks the bond ice has to the road surface, making it easier for snow plows to remove ice and packed snow.

Winter driving risks are greatly reduced when snow is plowed and salt is spread. For example, a study by Marquette University found that effective snow fighting, including spreading salt on roads, reduced traffic accidents by 85 percent and injury-causing accidents by 88 percent. The study also found deicing with salt makes a difference within the first 25 minutes after the salt is spread.

Snowstorms also impose enormous economic costs. The potential economic impact of snowstorms in 16 states and two Canadian provinces can cost those governments $ 300 million to $ 700 million a day in both direct and indirect economic costs from the slowdown in activity when roads are impassible, according to a study by IHS Global Insight. And nearly two-thirds of the direct economic losses fall on hourly workers, who are often the least able to afford them.

The economic cost of a single day of icy paralysis is greater than the cost of fighting snow for an entire season, says Poe.

So the next time you drive on clear pavement after a snowstorm, remember the men and women who worked through the night to clear the roads and spread the salt.