Winter 2016 Vol. 24, No. 1

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Reducing road salt: getting the public on board

Truck releasing road salt

Many snow and ice control professionals are taking action to reduce the amount of chloride that reaches our waters from road salt operations. But minimizing salt use takes more than commitment from agencies: the public needs to do its part, too.

Below, Connie Fortin discusses how changes in public expectations and behaviors could help reduce salt use. Fortin, of Fortin Consulting, was one of the authors of the LRRB-funded report Chloride Free Snow and Ice Control Materials (PDF), which we featured in the fall 2015 Exchange.

What level of service is expected, and why?

The level of service (LOS) that car commuters now expect on roadways is different than it was in the 1950s or even the 1980s. Improvements in technology have allowed the winter maintenance industry to increase the LOS to the point that most citizens expect bare pavement within hours after a storm.

The most common arguments for this higher level of service are based on public safety and economic impacts, but these are not completely valid. People assume that there are more crashes during the winter, taking more lives. Crash data, however, show that fewer lives are lost during the winter than in the summer. Winter crashes, like their summer counterparts, occur primarily because of driver error, but they happen more often at lower speeds and have lower rates of significant injury.

The economic argument concerns the losses that may come from a shutdown of urban areas during winter events. But this argument fails to take into account the reality of driver safety and the ways that more and more workers can be productive away from the work site. If vehicles are on the road during crucial plowing windows, then the time during which commuters may crash and experience delays is likely to be greater than if they had simply delayed their work day by a couple hours.

New MnDOT video: Winter Driving Safety

A new video from MnDOT—Winter Driving Safety 2015—is on MnDOT’s YouTube channel. The 8.5-minute video begins with information about work-zone safety in general and then focuses on the snowplow—the “work zone in motion.” The video is meant to help motorists handle the winter driving season safely.

More information about winter safety and work zone's is at www.dot.state.mn.us/workzone.

How can safe driving—or not driving—help winter maintenance crews?

Encouraging drivers to stay off the roads during storm events and clean-up could make it substantially easier for maintenance crews to remove snow and ice. Snow is easier to remove if it’s not compacted by traffic. And if plow drivers don’t have to treat a significant amount of compacted snow or ice, they can use less salt. Salting also is most effective when done at a slow speed, to reduce scatter. The presence of additional vehicles can make plow drivers feel pressured to go faster.

If employers and employees can work together to stagger start times, agree on work-at-home options, or otherwise reduce driving at the typical rush hour, the overall snow and ice removal process would yield better and quicker results—and use less salt.

Basically, we need to get drivers to take the pressure off agencies to have perfect roads in winter. Agencies will find it hard to change until citizens do.

MPCA video, training aim to reduce salt use

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has released a new 15-minute video—Improved Winter Maintenance: Good Choices for Clean Water. The video explains tools, techniques, and products that snow professionals and homeowners can use to keep driveways and sidewalks safe while protecting our waters. MPCA encourages cities to play the video on their local cable channel or distribute it however they can to their citizens, says Connie Fortin.

MPCA also offers training courses for winter maintenance professionals. The Level 1 Certification teaches snow and ice control best practices for workers in the public or private sector who maintain walkways and parking lots.

For more information, see go to www.pca.state.mn.us and search on “road salt and water quality.”

What are agencies doing to educate the public about winter driving?

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety offers public seminars on winter driving each year. MnDOT hits the airwaves and social media when the season’s first storm is forecast, and its website has much helpful information, including a new video about safe winter driving (see sidebar). Some cities hold open houses about winter maintenance efforts. The piece that is often missing from these efforts, unfortunately, is a clear connection to the environmental degradation from road salt.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) makes this connection more explicit. Its website includes materials such as brochures and postcards for citizens, sample policies, manuals, and videos. MPCA also offers training for professionals and citizens (see sidebar).

What’s the outlook?

The growth of recycling is a good model of how education can have a big impact over time. When I was a kid, recycling wasn’t common, but now it’s pretty much the norm in Minnesota. Education and public awareness made it happen. Seat belt use is another example of changing public behavior, but in that case, it took a law to make a big dent in the problem. I’m optimistic that if people know the issues about road salt, we can change voluntarily. It’s up to all of us to get the message out there.