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Sharing the road, keeping us safe: Snow plows are in full force this year

When he's not working on bridges in Goodhue County, Tyler Brandt is plowing roads for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. And so far in 2019, Brandt and his colleagues have been busy. Matthew Lambert / RiverTown Multimedia

Every year, at a moments notice, hundreds of snow plow drivers in Minnesota are called to action.

Working long hours, confined to a tank without the firing power, they brave the most difficult weather conditions to make sure drivers and citizens around the state are safe.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation does a wide variety of projects, but in the winter workers have to turn their attention to keeping the roads as clean as they can get them.

Tyler Brandt is one of those many drivers for MnDOT. As a transportation general senior, Brandt works on bridge maintenance when he's not plowing snow. He's driven heavy machinery on construction teams since he was a teenager and is a sergeant in the National Guard.

When storms are severe, Brandt and the others work 12-hour shifts. The route is monotonous, going back and forth, back and forth.

Brandt's route is Goodhue, Mazeppa, Zumbrota and Zumbro Falls. He plows the county highways only.

Prior to working in Goodhue County, Brandt worked in Ramsey County for two years plowing snow. He admits the work in Goodhue County has less clutter and fewer people.

But that doesn't mean his route doesn't present challenges.

Climb inside the plow

When you sit in the passenger seat of the plow, it's slightly jarring. Typically it's unexpected to have a seat with hydraulics that bring you down to a normal seated height. The sensation is like sitting on an office chair that has a defective seat height lever.

The plow is big, but interior is cluttered. Not to say it isn't clean, it is, but there are many capabilities this vehicle needs that others don't.

Take the joystick slightly off-center that controls all three blades on the truck, all working to push the snow from the center to the outside.

Brandt has to push, adjust, maneuver, and pivot the blades to ensure synchronous workings. A difficult job in park is made increasingly hard when traffic increases and the snow seems never ending.

Near the joystick is the salt distributor. This handy machine can decide how many pounds of salt come out per lane mile. On Jan. 28, Brandt is cleaning up the snowfall from the night before.

He worked the night before, too, but the job never stops when it comes to snow.

Nerve wracking

Brandt remembers the first time he went out in the plow. He was nervous, but in control. The snow wasn't out of control and he handled it well.

As he makes his rounds, the conversation dips when reaching Main Street in Zumbrota. There's still a significant amount of snow that needs to be moved, but when cars are parked on the road, navigation becomes increasingly difficult—dropping the side blade on the road, catching the excess snow, diverting it off the road while also not smashing into every vehicle crowding main street. An adjustment here, an adjustment there.

A car pulls out quickly ahead so the drive doesn't get stuck behind the plow heading out of town, but instead wheels spin out for short moment before catching.

Brandt's seen it and dealt with it all.

Even before the entrance of the East Covered Bridge Park a truck zooms around the plow.

Drivers vary, Brandt said. Some people like to stay behind the plow, some like to get a head of it. Either way, Brandt has to do his job.

Over the radio we hear a plow has been hit by car and is sitting on an off-ramp somewhere. It's an ominous reminder what drivers have to deal with on a daily basis.

"It's always nerve wracking trying to deal with all the cars and stuff," Brandt said. " It seems like they don't give you the time of day."

You're not going to get it all

Unless drivers got out on their hands and knee to scrap every piece of roadway, they aren't ever going to be perfect. The goal is to make the safest roadway possible, Brandt says. Make it so even the most seasoned, or most inexperienced, drivers can navigate the area.

Leaving Zumbrota to head to Goodhue, Brandt doesn't apply salt constantly. In some areas it isn't going to make much of a difference, he said, pointing out certain spots.

The drift-over can be difficult, sometimes when he passes through, on the way back, it can be partially covered again.

"Obviously you're not going to get every last bit," Brandt said.

When it comes to freezing rain, Brandt said that's especially difficult to treat because of its properties. Not easy to move water and ice off the road.

Ye Brandt likes the job. Whether he's plowing or working on bridges, the work fulfills him.

Just like first responders and police, share the road with plow drivers like Brandt. He's trying to make it safer for you, so give him the common courtesy of making it safe for him.

Winter safety tips

Minnesota Department of Transportation offers these tips to staying safe when traveling in wintery conditions.

  • Call 511 or visit 511mn.org before leaving on your trip to get current road conditions.
  • Turn on your headlights and wear your seat belt.
  • Turn off your cruise control.
  • Slow down; allow at least 10 car lengths between your vehicle and a plow.
  • Stay behind the snowplow. The road behind a snowplow is safer to drive on than lanes that haven’t been cleared..
  • Watch for snowplows that turn or exit frequently, and often with little warning.
  • Never drive into a snow cloud.
Matthew Lambert

Matthew Lambert joined the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2018 covering school board, public safety, and writing features. Lambert previously wrote for the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal. He is a graduate of Winona State University with a Bachelor's degree in Mass Communication: Journalism. 

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