Monday, January 27, 2014
What is a work day like behind the wheel of a snow plow?
Posted: Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Call him a snowman. Tim Hunt doesn’t mind.
On days like Tuesday, his life revolves around frozen precipitation starting before dawn and ending who knows when.
Hunt is a snow plow driver.
The 36-year-old Feasterville man has worked for PennDOT for 13 years manning a 10-wheel dump truck that, once loaded with salt, a plow and spreader, tips the scales at 30 tons. He navigates snow-covered, ice slick roads that can bend and turn like cooked spaghetti.
His typical winter storm day starts hours before the first flake appears, as he covers roads with a salt brine mixture to help prevent snow freeze. On Tuesday, when forecasters were calling for up to 10 inches of snow in Bucks County, he hit the roads at 4 a.m.
Once the snow starts falling his life is plow, plow, plow, eat, sleep, plow, and plow. The routine is repeated until the roads are clear, which doesn’t happen until hours after the snow stops.
“Just moving in circles,” he said Tuesday as he navigated a roughly 20-mile circle that is his route.
He sits at least 6 feet higher off the road than other motorists inside a small cab that is so warm he sometimes wears tank tops and opens the windows on below freezing days. Hunt says he has to drink water constantly so he doesn’t dehydrate.
Snowplow cabs have to be kept unusually warm to prevent ice from freezing on the windshields preventing them from seeing the roads they are trying to clear and keep safe.
Around 2 p.m. he headed down snowy Buck Road from Lower Southampton, snaking around a dangerous S-curve into Holland, and continued to the Newtown Township border where he turned around. On the return trip, he passed through Old Bristol Road in Holland to Bridgetown Pike in Lower Southampton.
He had made the same trip 12 times, spreading almost 28 tons of salt and cinder materials.
“Some people love us, and some people hate us,” Hunt said.
The ones that love plow drivers will stop Hunt at a red light, roll down the window and thank him for keeping the roads clear or throw a thumbs-up. The ones who hate plow drivers will try and pass them on the road.
But there are a lot of things people don’t know about snow plow drivers — such as that those giant plows can get stuck in the snow if they run low on material that helps weight them down.
Plowing snow doesn’t bother Hunt. Ice is another story.
Snow plow drivers have to juggle a lot of things at once, such as making sure you don’t get too close to mailboxes on the route. That’s not because the plow might hit them, but the weight of the snow will topple the mailboxes. Monitoring air and road surface temperatures also is critical especially when they hover around the freezing mark.
Hunt has seen some scary things on the job. Once he saw an SUV roll down a hill in front of him and a child car seat shot out of the vehicle. Hunt stopped his plow and ran to check the car seat. Turned out there was no child in the car.
As he drives, he constantly keeps an eye on the trees. The heavier the snow falls, the higher the wind gusts, and the greater the risk a loose branch will smash into the plow, Hunt said.
Plow drivers always want to try and keep the yellow divider line exposed, since it’s what they use as a guide when the snowfall gets heavy. Otherwise they won’t know what lane they’re in until they land in a ditch.
“If you go off the road, you’re no good to anyone,” Hunt said.
Watching driving speed is critical. Hunt keeps his speedometer at 20 mph, he said, because if you drive too fast, the salt just bounces off the road. Drive too fast and you’ll hit a manhole cover or potholes.
Another thing most people don’t know about snow plow drivers is they rarely get a chance to enjoy the snow. Hunt has never sledded or built a snowman with his 8-year-old daughter.
“By the time I get home I’m exhausted and half the time the snow has started to melt,” he said. “We make a lot of sacrifices — holidays, birthdays. When it’s snowing, you have to be here.”