What's it like to drive a Nobles County snowplow?
"The biggest thing for us is, just drive with caution. Don’t pass us. Give us space. Give us time."
WORTHINGTON — After two successive bouts with winter storms, the sound of snowplows have become background noise in Nobles County, even as their drivers face down poor visibility, ultra-slick roads and hardened drifts waiting to drag even the heaviest machinery into a ditch.
The rumble of the engine, the scrape of the blade and the beep-beep-beep of backing up are everywhere, and so are the state and local fleets that make them, charged with making roads drivable, sidewalks walkable and parking lots parkable.
“We want the roads cleaned just as fast and just as good as everyone else does,” said Cody Reverts, part of the Nobles County highway maintenance crew
Nobles County’s road maintenance crew operates a variety of snow removal equipment, including various types of snow blowers as well as the massive Mack dump trucks the county uses to plow the 363 miles of bituminous roads and 80 miles of gravel roads it is responsible for.
Drivers of the big plows run a route of about 44 miles each way, for a loop of 88 miles. Including the multiple passes it takes to completely clear a road — if no additional snow falls and there is no wind — a route takes about seven and a half to eight hours to complete.
A route that includes Nobles County 35 from Worthington to Adrian, as well as Nobles County 15 to the Murray County line, belongs to Reverts, and when the snow flies, he drives.
His truck has a massive blade at the front that can be shifted to push snow to the left as well as the right, as well as an underbody blade. The back of the truck is loaded up with a 50-50 mix of sand and sand, as well as tanks of liquid mix designed to make ice melt faster.
If there’s no wind, the plow lays the salt-sand mix down continuously, but if the wind is high, only hazardous areas like curves and intersections get the mixture. That’s because wind can blow the mix around and allow it to accumulate snow, potentially making the situation worse rather than fixing it.
While it would seem impossible for such a heavy vehicle with a heavy load to slip, snowplows are not immune to icy conditions, and sometimes, a driver can feel the plow move a bit if the roads are particularly slick — though usually not much.
Plows are also not immune to visibility issues, and in fact, their drivers often cannot see any better than the people in any other vehicle, despite being a bit further off the ground. The issue can be compounded by their mission of shifting snow off the road, because sometimes that snow catches a gust of wind and blows into the windshield.
“Slow down, pay attention to what you’re doing,” Reverts said. “Give us some space. If we can’t see or if they can’t see, more than likely we can’t see them as well.”
Snow drifts, too, can pose a challenge, depending on the depth, shape and type of snow. It’s possible for a plow to get stuck if a drift is too long or too big, and hitting a drift in the wrong way can result in a plow being dragged into a ditch, Reverts said. If that happens, other plows come and drag the vehicle out.
The biggest challenge, however, is working around other traffic, as people often crowd the plows or even try to pass them, not realizing that roads ahead aren’t clear and that if a plow stops they might not be able to tell due to the cloud of snow it sometimes produces.
“We’re probably stopped for a reason,” Reverts pointed out. “It could be that we’re turning or another car accident’s in front of us. If we are stopped, we’ll wave you by when it’s safe; if not, stay put.”
The Minnesota Department of Transportation recommends that people stay at least 10 car lengths behind plows, or at least 50 feet, and advises drivers not to drive into a snow cloud.
Typically, when the weather gets bad, Cliff Altman, Nobles County maintenance superintendent, will send out a group message to the plow drivers, who often start their routes at 5 a.m. after a snowstorm. Timing can differ significantly depending on the weather event, though.
“We’ll be out during an event if possible,” Reverts said, noting that sometimes visibility is simply too poor to allow for safe snow removal.
In order to determine which roads get plowed first, Nobles County examines their average daily traffic, and does at least one pass on its paved roads before it starts on the gravel roads, Reverts said.
Reverts goes out armed with two insulated mugs, one containing coffee and the second containing water. There’s another water bottle in the cab of his truck, and usually, country music on the radio, with occasional communications from other county maintenance staff coordinating snow removal. A monitor shows the driver how much salt and sand mixture is going onto the road.
Weather conditions play a role in whether the cab of the snowplow is warm, but regardless of its temperature, it is noisy, even with the music off. The engine is always rumbling, and when either the front plow or the underbody blade are down and in use, the scraping noise is audible and the ride gets rougher, too, jostling the driver even at the relatively sedate pace of 30 to 35 miles per hour.
“The biggest thing is, just give us room… give us time to do our job,” Reverts said. “Stay off the roads at all costs, if you can, on the real bad weather.”