BILLINGS — With a lot of winter left to go, snowplow drivers in Montana are sending out the call for safety after 17 plows have been struck by other motorists this season.
"Just back off and let the snowplows work. The drivers are going to get off the road and let traffic pass at some point, but they have to do their work too and clear the roads. They're making everything safe for everybody," said Walt Kerttula, Montana Department of Transportation equipment bureau chief, on Wednesday.
Sometimes, staying safe on winter roads is as simple as packing your patience. The general rule is never pass the plow, because you don't know what's beyond the snow cloud turned up by the plow, Kerttula said.
Of the 17 crashes, most were on the western half of the state. This winter is about on par with others when it comes to crashes, with the last six years averaging 24 crashes per winter, Kerttula said.
View the map below to see approximate locations of this winter's crashes where motorists hit a plow.
"We might be a little bit ahead. Last year we had 20 snowplows hit, and it was a light winter. So I think we're probably at the average or above is what we're looking at for this year. There's a lot of winter left, so we're probably going to have some more hits," Kerttula said.
Most of the crashes have one thing in common: people driving too close to the plow, Kerttula said. Sometimes the problem is excessive speed. Other times, people drive into the plow's snow cloud and run into trouble.
"You don't know if they are using a wing plow, which way they are pushing the snow. They could be pushing it into your lane and you have to drive over a berm," Kerttula said.
The damage done to a snowplow as a result of a crash costs $3,000 on average to repair. The damage can also knock a plow out of service entirely.
"A lot of times we'll have the sander shoot hit or the plow hit on the truck and they might be able to work. Just take off the damaged items and still work throughout the day. Sometimes there's no real structural damage so we can keep working. Sometimes it takes the plow out for good where we have to dispose of it. Sometimes it might take to the summer before we can get it fixed," Kerttula said.
If you find yourself driving in a winter storm, remember not to crowd the plow. Luckily this year, Kerttula said he wasn't aware of any serious injuries to plow drivers from any of the winter's crashes.