Guidelines for snow plow drivers, once verbal, are now encoded for Columbia County highway workers

February 16, 2019

Verbal policies guiding Columbia County snow plow drivers in how they should conduct themselves and best practices for getting the job done are now written rules, distributed in a manual.

Time-tested snow removal policies, previously passed along by word of mouth now can be read by drivers, a change Columbia County Highway Department leaders say will facilitate better consistency, safer procedures and more effective communication.

At a Traffic Safety Commission meeting Feb. 8, Columbia County Highway Commissioner Chris Hardy said the department still uses the same policies it has followed all along.

The policies are fairly consistent with other departments nationwide, Hardy said.

Several issues can arise for plow drivers, and knowing how to tackle various challenges can be beneficial.

For example, the manual recommends plow drivers stop and raise their plows before crossing railroad tracks so they don’t damage the plows. Drivers also are advised to watch out and slow down for horse buggy traffic.

In one incident, Hardy said a plow driver spread traction material over an icy road while passing a horse and buggy. The horse got spooked and jumped off the road.

“No one got hurt, but they could have,” Hardy said.

Portage Public Works Director Aaron Jahncke said changes at the county won’t have much impact on the city’s snow removal. For the most part, municipal and county employees plow different areas.

One exception where overlap may occur is near the cemetery along Highway O and to the east from Ontario Street. The city and county plow around the same area, almost overlapping, but not quite.

“Once you get over the Wisconsin River Bridge, the county plows everything from there,” Jahncke said.

Pardeeville public works director Erin Salmon said the village’s plow drivers verbally discuss plans before the village declares a snow emergency.

Salmon said the village could benefit from establishing time frames for how long a snow emergency should last. But there can be gray area because storms require varying amounts of time to get the roads clear.

Salmon said she might be open to discussing writing down specific aspects of recommended snow removal procedures with the village board.

“Perhaps that’s something we could explore,” Salmon said.

The county’s new mandates differentiate between situations when plow drivers should use salt or sand to deal with wintry conditions.

Salt is used on icy roads because it helps dissolve the slippery ice patches into liquid form and allows it to run off highways, Hardy said. But if conditions are too cold, salt is not as effective and sand can help improve traction.

Sand is especially useful during cold snaps, such as the deep freeze that blew through Columbia County earlier this month.

Hardy said Columbia County highway workers collectively use about 300 tons of sand and 500 tons of salt every time a snowstorm rolls through the region. The county sees an average of 20 snowstorms each year.

With the exception of freezing rain, which requires greater need for material, the county gradually uses less salt as the season goes on.

Highway staff generally spreads anti-icing material to help fill gaps three to four days before storms.

“It’s highly effective in terms of response time,” Hardy said.

Plow drivers are advised not to exceed 45 mph, because if they go too fast, most of the material will end up on the shoulder instead of the road, Hardy said.

Highway employees also are encouraged to communicate with one another in case of accidents, scheduling conflicts or impassible roads. Speed restrictions also come into play for safety precautions.

“The last thing we need is a plow guy in an accident, because now we’re short-handed,” Hardy said.