Roads Might Be Dicier than Usual this Winter: NMA E-Newsletter #673

It won’t entirely be Mother Nature’s fault either.

A number of state departments of transportation are warning drivers that roads and mountain passes may be closed longer and will likely be in worse condition than normal. Just as the nation’s staffing shortage has hit school bus drivers, it has also reduced the ranks of intrepid men and women who plow and salt our bridges, streets, and roads every year.

USA Today reported Colorado, Ohio, Oregon, Michigan, Missouri, and Pennsylvania each need to hire an additional 100+ people to clear state roads. Colorado is currently faced with a snowplow operator shortage of nearly 20 percent. Michigan DOT spokesperson Mark Geib said that his state’s shortfall of workers is likely due to a competitive job market. He explained that the private sector could offer bonuses and higher wages to commercial drivers, whereas his department has preset salaries with no room to budge.

In early November, Washington State’s DOT announced reduced road service ahead of the first significant snow of the season. Officials attributed the labor shortage to a mix of aging staff retiring, pandemic-related workforce freezes, and layoffs. They pointed to a national shortage of both diesel mechanics and holders of commercial driver’s licenses. The state’s vaccine mandate also caused a six percent reduction in staff. Washington’s DOT is down about 300 workers overall.

Since then, Washington and the British Columbia area were hit with torrential rains and mudslides—a different kind of winter driving problem outlined in our recent newsletter on Driving through a Weather Disaster.

So what does this mean for drivers in the northwest and other winter and mountain states with these kinds of labor shortages?

  • Freeways might have only one or two lanes plowed and open.
  • Rural roads will likely be minimally plowed and not monitored 24 hours per day.
  • Some roads and mountain passes will be closed longer after storms.
  • Lower speed limits will be more commonplace, particularly on roads with variable speed signs.
  • First responders will be slower attending to accidents and other emergencies.

Washington DOT officials said in their announcement that crews would focus on critical or high-volume roads in order of preexisting plowing-priority maps.

Here are some ways that winter travelers can prepare for road trips:

  • If the trip is unnecessary, consider delaying it until better weather.
  • Prepare an emergency travel kit that includes blankets, extra clothing, gloves, snacks, jumper cables, and other supplies to be used for everyday winter travel. Don’t forget some sort of flag to use on your car window or antenna if your vehicle becomes stuck in a snowbank or is disabled in low-visibility conditions.
  • Ensure your vehicle is ready for winter travel by replacing windshield wipers and making sure all lights and tires are in good working order. Put on winter tires and make certain tire chains (in states that permit them) do not need to be replaced. Gear Patrol has some ideas for other products that might be useful.
  • Suggestion from an NMA supporter—Wax your car all over, including windshield and windows inside and out. This type of maintenance can help keep snow and ice off the outside and keep the windshield from freezing on the inside.
  • Keep your gas tank at least half full as much as possible.
  • If you need to travel through mountain passes and other areas with a wintry mix, check real-time weather reports and driving conditions before going through the area.
  • Allow extra room between yourself and the vehicle in front of you. Do not use cruise control.
  • Be extra attentive near intersections, off and on-ramps, bridges, chain-up and removal areas, rest stops, and truck stops.
  • If you encounter a snowplow or salt truck, heed the equipment, which sometimes drifts into adjacent lanes and can spray snow onto the windshields of passing vehicles.

Whatever you do, please be safe out there this winter!

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