MISSOULA — Now that winter is hitting Montana with full force, you'll be sharing the roads with the plows and as the fourth largest state in the U.S., Montana has thousands of miles to cover.
The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) maintains 25,000 lane miles of roads and plows four million miles of highway.
That's equal to about 160 times around the world or eight trips to the moon.
But as the snow piles up, this season has presented a new problem for MDT -- a seasonal shortage of snowplow drivers. A 50% shortage.
We hit the road with MDT's Missoula Division to experience firsthand what day-to-day operations are like.
A snowplow driver is out the door before most of the world hits snooze on the alarm clock.
"Get to work, check the weather conditions, see if it’s snowing,” said the MDT’s Tanner Babbit.
Driving a plow doesn’t only take exceptional driving skills; the critical thinking aspect is just that -- critical.
“We’re out here just to keep everyone on the road and hopefully we get rid of our death toll on Montana roads,” Babbitt observed.
But as people like Babbitt plow around the clock to keep the roads safe, they’re fighting more than winter weather -- they’re also dealing with drivers.
“You're going 70, 80 miles an hour, and I'm going 35 and a plow truck. You have to be paying attention, so you don't rear-end me,” Babbit noted.
The criticism can be harsher than the cold, and the driving from frustrated travelers can be more dangerous than the ice.
Babbitt grew up just down the road in Bonner and in plowing through the challenges, he’s protecting his wife, his three kids, and the friends who travel these roads.
"I haven't had a New Year’s off since I started. This New Year’s I worked an 11-and-a-half-hour day. Christmas this year I didn't get home until three. But at the same time, it's the holidays, and everyone's driving these roads. They have family to see. So I'm happy to be out here keeping everyone safe.” - MDT snowplow driver Tanner Babbit
Babbitt is just one of 85 drivers for MDT’s Missoula division this winter. While some regions across the state are desperate for drivers, Missoula has dodged the shortage.
"We were short a little bit earlier on in December, but we're in a lot better shape now than we were a month ago,” noted MDT Missoula Maintenance Chief Steve Felix.
He chalks it up to a larger population with more drivers to choose from. He also says that most drivers dedicate years to the Missoula Division before moving on.”
“Once we start into winter operations here it's a, it's a go, go thing here. It doesn't slow down, especially when we're in these patterns like we are right now.
The City of Missoula takes care of the street in front of your home or your child’s school while MDT’s territory is larger and oftentimes more dangerous.
“We take care of the interstate, highway...the more high speed heavily traveled routes,” Felix said.
Now in the MDT business for 23 years, Felix has seen it all, but this year, he’s noticing one difference.
"There seems to be more impatient and more aggressive drivers we've seen with the pandemic. Not everyone always. But it seems to be on an uptick and our drivers are seeing that too.” - MDT Missoula Maintenance Chief Steve Felix
So, keep the distance, take a deep breath, and remember why the plow drivers do what they do.
“That’s our whole goal, Vision Zero. No more deaths on our roads,” Babbit concluded.