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Stay back! Motorists reminded to keep safe distance

While the operator of a car stopped 20 feet behind a snowplow sees this...1 / 2
... a snowplow operator can see very little of the car stopped 20 feet behind them (Only the side mirror of the car is visible).2 / 2

Would you tailgate an ambulance? How about a police car? If it's common sense to be courteous to vehicles that keep our communities safe, why wouldn't motorists give snowplow drivers the same respect?

"You don't have to pull over like for a police car or an ambulance coming, but if (snowplows) are engaged in winter maintenance activities, and have their lights on, be careful," said County Highway Commissioner Tim Ramberg.

Motorists have heard it before, stay a safe distance away from winter maintenance vehicles. But year after year plow drivers say the same thing. They get tailgated and cut off on a regular basis.

Plow trucks are heavy, slow to stop, hard to see from, wider than the average vehicle and most have huge metal blades sticking out the sides of them. All of these factors hold potential hazards if the average motorist does not stay a safe distance away.

Did you know?

According to Wisconsin Statutes, a "snowplow" is considered a vehicle operated by an employee of an authority in charge of highway winter maintenance, snow and ice removal, including plowing, salting and sanding, "during either a storm or cleanup following a storm," and there are laws describing how closely other vehicles may drive to them.

If the snowplow lights are flashing, other motorists may not follow a snowplow closer than:

• "200 feet upon a highway having a posted speed limit of more than 35 mph."

• "75 feet upon any highway having a posted speed limit of 35 mph or less."

• When a snowplow is engaged in highway winter maintenance (lights on) and it's stopped at an intersection, other motorists "shall stop not less than 20 feet from the snowplow and remain stopped until the snowplow resumes motion."

• It is legal to pass a snowplow, but drivers should be extremely cautious because of the "snow cloud" the plow's wing blade usually creates.

So what about those motorists who have a poor sense of distance?

"Between electric poles is 300 feet, in a normal setting of them, so if you're traveling and you see a plow truck passing a pole, look to see where you're at. If you're more than halfway between his pole and the one behind you, you're too close," said Randy Gunderson, patrol superintendent at the St. Croix County Highway Department.

To clear an intersection on a state road, snowplows often need to drive forward and backward, with limited visibility. This type of maintenance creates a number of safety challenges.

Depending on the amount of snow, plows sometimes need to backup to "widen out the intersection so the traffic can see when they get to the intersection," Gunderson said.

Gunderson said a plow might have to back up two or three times to adequately clear an intersection.

"Whenever you see a plow at an intersection you should be aware that they could back up at any time," Gunderson said.

"We've had two incidents now where the people pulled up so close behind them, that (the plow drivers) couldn't see the other vehicle in their mirror," Gunderson said.

Gunderson said if anyone were closer than 20 feet to the back of a plow truck, the driver would never be able to see their vehicle.

Gunderson said some of the county's trucks have backup cameras in them, but in bad conditions, those cameras can get covered with freezing snow and ice, making them useless.

Every winter the St. Croix County Highway Department and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation remind drivers to be aware of their surroundings, slow down and drive for the conditions.

Drivers may notice that plows sometimes go faster than what one might consider safe during a snow storm.

Gunderson said the average speed of a snowplow is 35-40 mph, on county and state roads.

"They need to go that speed to get the snow off the road. If they go any slower the snow will just roll off the plow and pile up on the shoulder. So, they need to keep their speed up to get it thrown out into the ditch," Gunderson said.

Be considerate

• "Give plows as much room as possible. If you're meeting them, move over some and don't crowd the center line," Gunderson said.

• Follow the minimum distance laws of 200, 75 and 20 feet.

• Be especially careful around bridges and avoid passing a plow going over a bridge. Gunderson said many times plows need to cross the center line to make enough room for the large "wing" blade that sticks out from the side of the truck. When driving toward a plow on a bridge, if possible, let the plow cross the bridge first.

• Don't tailgate or give plow drivers obscene hand gestures.

Ramberg said while most people already know the distance laws, he hopes people use good judgment to ensure everyone on the roadways, both cars and plows, stays safe this snowy season.

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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