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DOH snowplow drivers encourage ‘safety first’

Photos by Cindy Johnson
Winter is the busiest time of the year for the West Virginia Division of Highways in Pocahontas County. Snowplow drivers spend most of their time clearing the roadways for residents and visitors. Above: WVDOH snowplow and cinder truck works on Rt. 219 near Hillsboro.

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

“The best advice I can give drivers is just to slow down!” said Jason Cassell, PW3 Equipment Operator, at the Green Bank Division of Highways garage.

That is traight from the horse’s, er, snowplow driver’s mouth, and that is what drivers must do if they want to be safe on Pocahontas County roads in the winter.

Or any time, for that matter.

Drivers from outside of Pocahontas County often don’t appreciate how tricky it can be to drive on our roads, especially in snow – or rain and fog.

“We see about ten-to-fifteen cars stuck in the ditch every winter,” Cassell said. “Thank goodness most of the accidents we see aren’t major. But our roads can be a challenge if you’re not used to them and even if you are!

“Most accidents, summer and winter, happen because the driver is going too fast for the road conditions.

“Even if the road seems dry and safe, you always have to be paying attention.

“You never know when a rock will tumble into the road or a tree gets uprooted and falls across the road and wildlife can dart out in front of you.”

And another general safety tip and rule of the road –  if you’re using your windshield wipers, turn on your lights.

When you’re driving on snowy mountain roads, drop down into a lower gear and don’t use your brake more than you have to. That way, when you really need your brakes, they’ll be there.

Cassell drives a tandem axle truck with a plow on the front and a cinder spreader on the back.

He’s been working on these roads for 11 ? years. His usual duties are on WV routes 84 and 92.

If road conditions are really bad, it would be a good idea if you can wait until a snowplow comes by and then follow it.

But, even a snowplow driver can have trouble on an icy or snowy road.

“I’ve gotten stuck in a ditch before and had to get pulled out by a grader,” Cassell said. “It’s frustrating and kind of embarrassing, but the other guys don’t give you too hard a time, because they know it could happen to them, too.”

Here are some tips from Cassell:

“If you’re going to drive on Pocahontas County roads in the winter, you’ll need good snow tires and a 4-wheel or an all- wheel drive vehicle.

“If you get stuck, have an accident or your car quits, put on your emergency flashers and try to move as far out of the road as you can.

“We get thick patches of fog sometimes. If you’re driving in bad fog, put on your flashers, watch out for other drivers and try to get off the road as soon as you can.

“Keep some jumper cables, a flashlight, extra blankets, food and water and a bag or two of kitty litter. That kitty litter can help with traction if you get a little stuck in the snow.

“Just be prepared to stay in your vehicle and keep warm while you wait.

“If you’re stuck or you’ve had an accident, when a state road driver comes past and sees you, he can report it for you. The driver may allow you to sit in his truck to warm up a bit while he calls it in, but he’s not permitted to take you anywhere.

Cassell says that it’s not an easy job, driving the snow plow, day and night, for long stretches of time. And sometimes, although the trucks are heated, even he gets cold.

“Sometimes a driver has to get out to move an obstacle out of the road. I keep an extra jacket and pants in the truck in case I have to get out and get wet.

“Ice can be tricky. The road may look like it’s wet but it’s really ice. One way to tell if there’s ice is by looking at the back sides of your mirrors (the sides facing forward). If ice is accumulating there, you know it’s probably icy on the road.

When there’s ice, the best thing is to stay off the road until it’s been treated with salt and cinders.

Gray Beverage, native Pocahontas Countian and Crew Chief at the Green Bank Sub-Station, offers the following information:
“I’ve been working for the West Virginia Division of Highways for eight years,” he said. “And most of the trouble I’ve seen motorists get into in the winter has to do with unsafe speed for the road conditions.”

“Now, a snowplow can’t go any faster than 35 miles per hour.

“We hate to see it, but sometimes a driver will get impatient following a snowplow and pass us. Sure enough, a little bit up the road, we’ll sometimes see that same driver over the hill or in a ditch – just because they wanted to go faster than they should.

“Then we have to try to help them as best as we can – get an ambulance or a wrecker to come. Their day is ruined and that time they thought they were saving and that extra speed was for nothing.

“Local people should stay off the roads whenever possible when the weather is bad to give us a chance to get the roads cleared faster.

“Our drivers don’t plow a road all at once. They plow one side and then come back and plow the other side.

“And there is a method to the madness when all the roads are real bad. We put down gravel and salt, and we don’t just start plowing anywhere.

There’s an order to how we clear the roads.

“Main roads first. When they are clear, we can start working on secondary roads, then we tackle dirt roads or back roads.

“We can put treatment (salt and #8 gravel) on paved roads. We use 3/4-inch stone on surface-treated (aka tar and chipped) roads. We can’t put salt on a “surface treated road” as it will deteriorate the road. And we can’t put salt on gravel roads. It will turn the road to mud.

“Listen to Allegheny Mountain Radio for school delays. When there’s snow, we try to clear the bus routes first.

“Mrs. [Ruth]Bland will call county superintendent Josh Dilley and ask when we’re going to have the roads done.

“When it’s snowing, we’re working 12 on and 12 off shifts. And 12 hours is a long time to be driving that snow plow, but our drivers are encouraged to take breaks whenever they are getting too tired to drive. They’re allowed to take a 15 minute nap or get out and walk around the truck when they need to.

“We communicate with each other and the garage by radio. Being in constant communication is very important.

“Our drivers have to know how to work in all kinds of conditions – in snow, on ice, during periods of high water, high winds and when there are rock slides.

“During the Derecho, we were out on the roads for about 28 hours straight to get the roads passable and then constantly for about two or three weeks to get the roads cleared up.

“We get called out in the middle of the night.

“If you come upon debris in the middle of the road, and you can do it safely, go ahead and clear it out of the way. Just be careful.

“We occasionally get calls from citizens who need our help. And sometimes we get a call that makes us smile. The last snow storm we had in November, I had an irate man calling me and insisting that we needed to come out and plow the snow off of his road. But the name of the road was one I’d never heard of. Turns out, the caller was from Hampshire County, so I had to tell him to contact the garage in Romney.

“Do not trust your GPS – it may steer you wrong here in Pocahontas County.

“There are roads we do not plow in the winter. Sometimes a driver’s GPS will direct them onto a road that is not plowed, and they will get stuck in the snow.”

One of the more infamous exchanges between an emergency vehicle and a driver stranded on one of these unplowed roads goes like this:

“Why didn’t you heed the sign back there that said ‘Road Not Plowed in winter?”‘

“Stranded motorist: “I thought it was a joke.”

“I used to like the snow, but not so much anymore,” Beverage laughed.

Anytime a driver wants to call ahead to check on road conditions, they can dial 511 and get a pre-recorded message telling them what to expect.

Drivers can also call the West Virginia State Road Hotline 877-982-7623 or the Virginia State Road Hotline 877-367-7623.

But, when conditions are bad, remember, the safest thing is to stay put until the road crews have had a chance to make the roads safe again.

Remember these wise words from snowplow Beverage:

“If you don’t have to go out in a snowstorm, stay home!”

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