The Wyoming Department of Transportation had all hands on deck over the Thanksgiving weekend as the first serious winter storm of the season hammered southcentral Wyoming. But even WYDOT’s plow trucks weren’t safe from the hazardous conditions created by other drivers on the icy pavement.
Over a four-day period, three WYDOT plow trucks were hit by other vehicles, all in District 1, which includes the stretch of Interstate 80 between Rawlins and Cheyenne.
“Two of (the incidents) involved a hit-from-behind,” said WYDOT spokesperson Jordan Young. “The other was more of a sideswipe situation. So, it involved someone coming up from behind realizing they are going too fast for conditions and not being able to avoid the collision in time.”
Young said the three vehicles involved in the crashes were a semitruck, a regular passenger sedan and a pickup. One of the three impacted plow trucks was able to continue plowing and sanding after a delay, but the other two were damaged to the point that they were taken out of commission for repairs.
“A plow that's no longer able to operate is a plow off the road,” Young said. “So, it definitely had some different challenges for us to try to overcome.”
None of the WYDOT employees driving the trucks were hurt in the crashes. Employee safety is paramount, and crashes that are serious enough to injure drivers are especially detrimental to WYDOT’s plowing efforts, Young said.
“Our employees hear about one of their co-workers or friends being involved in a collision. (Then) we must find someone to fill in that space, especially on somewhere like I-80, which is a 24-hour road. We must have plows on there 24 hours a day,” she said.
It’s not only a problem for WYDOT. The Wyoming Highway Patrol also responded to the accidents, which added to the deluge of calls the agency received and responded to during the storm.
In 48 hours, Wyoming Highway Patrol troopers investigated 125 crashes, cleared 64 road hazards, assisted 145 stranded motorists and responded to numerous 911 calls for service.
Slowly When Snowy
Young said the consistent factor in all three crashes was driver speed and inattention. Amid a severe winter storm, it’s doubly important for people to drive according to conditions and remove anything that may distract them from the road.
“No matter the weather or the season, it’s important to not look at your phone and not get distracted by anything in or outside of your vehicle. Those are major behavioral impacts that can make driving safer for everyone year-round,” she said.
Being aware of the weather is one thing, but being aware of a plow truck’s weather is enough. Young said plow trucks create their own snow clouds as they do their work, which can create further hazards for anyone who gets too close.
“The texture of our snow makes it prone to being whipped up with the wind and the plow movement,” she said. “Despite the bright flashing lights on the back, it can be hard to see them if the storm is still really going hard. So, we ask folks that if visibility isn't good, slow down, wait till visibility is better, especially, you know, before driving fast and making sure to give themselves time to pass.”
All Wyomingites are encouraged to download the Wyoming 511 app for up-to-date information on state and federal highway conditions. The app was continuously updated during the storm, alerting drivers when highways were partially or completely closed and providing any estimated time for reopening.
Young doesn’t fault anyone who needed to travel during the storm for any reason they had. When travel Is essential during a storm as intense as this recent event, drivers are responsible for being as safe and proactive as possible before and during their drive.
“We know that sometimes travel is really essential,” she said. “But there’s a lot to be said for driving according to the conditions you're experiencing. And not looking at the speed limit as the minimum instead of the maximum.”
Andrew Rossi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.