It's the dead of winter in Saskatchewan as a lone car travels down a highway. A swirl of snow sails across the windshield, obscuring the vision of the driver behind the wheel. He shouldn't be going so fast, but he is impatient. He has somewhere he needs to be. Suddenly, the visibility worsens and it's almost a total whiteout. But he keeps pushing forward and by the time he sees it, it's too late. He's crashed into the back of a snow plow.
"Every year we see motorists collide with snow plows - in fact 58 collisions since 1998 - and in the majority of cases it's because the driver didn't see the snow plow until it was too late," Highways and Infrastructure Minister Don McMorris said. "We're hoping to spread the message to ‘stay back and stay safe' this winter so our operators can do their work to keep the roads clear so everyone can get home safe."
A video available on the Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure's website at www.highways.gov.sk.ca shows the stark reality of what can happen to a motorist when they don't slow down and stay back.
It's a reality Clarence Hillier, a 20-year snow plow veteran, faced in the winter of 2011 when he was hit from behind by a semi while travelling west on Highway 1 near Balgonie, clearing snow drifts in the passing lane.
A semi tried to pass a half-ton truck in the drivers' lane but saw the snow plow, which was obscured in a cloud of snow at the last minute. The driver tried to veer back into the right lane but it was too late - he clipped the back right-hand corner of the plow at approximately 110 kilometres/hr. Debris scattered everywhere, and when Hillier tried to counter-steer the plow he hit a guard rail.
"Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt, but it really scared me," Hillier said. "I was shaking and I had to jump out of the plow and flag people to slow down. Getting back into the plow a couple days later was hard but I knew I had to do it, or it would get worse with time. Even a couple of months later, I was still gun shy."
Today, Clarence is still plowing snow, and hoping that drivers will take the message ‘stay back and stay safe' to heart.
Snow plows can create a whiteout condition in their wake, obscuring the plow from sight despite the checkerboard truck boxes and flashing lights meant to keep them visible. Motorists who approach a sudden whiteout should be aware it is likely a snow plow up ahead, and to slow down and stay back. The plows pull over every 10 kilometres or so to allow vehicles to pass.
Legislation passed in the spring of 2009 also requires drivers to slow to 60 km/hr when passing a snow plow with warning lights flashing whether in operation or stopped on the side of the road.
There are about 300 snow plow trucks working in 85 maintenance sections throughout the province on the road before, during and after storms. Highways are inspected frequently to determine if plowing or salt/sand application is needed, and to report up-to-date highway conditions to the Highway Hotline.
Winter maintenance is prioritized based on classification and traffic volumes:
Level 1 - Snow removal or ice treatment occurs on the driving lanes within six hours of the end of the storm on highways that serve as commuter routes, major inter-provincial and international travel routes, and have an average annual daily traffic (AADT) count of 1,500 or more vehicles. Additional time may be required in extreme circumstances.
Level 2 - Snow removal or ice treatment occurs within 12 hours of the end of the storm on highways with an AADT between 300 and 1,500 without jeopardizing service to Level 1 highways. Additional time may be required in extreme circumstances.
Level 3 - Snow removal or ice treatment should occur on all other highways with an AADT less than 300 as soon as possible or within 24 hours, without jeopardizing service to Level 1 or 2 highways.
Motorists are always urged to ‘know before you go' by checking the Highway Hotline for road conditions. Go to www.highways.gov.sk.ca and click on the Highway Hotline button to check map and text reports, access a mobile website, sign up for Twitter notices or check out the Facebook page. Callers can also dial 1-888-335-7623 toll-free across Canada.