Public Safety

Winter crashes imperil Iowa state snow plows and police cruisers

Drivers need to be alert and slow down, authorities say

Mechanic Kyle Ripple heats up a bolt to loosen it while working with a colleague Thursday to reinstall a hydraulic cylin
Mechanic Kyle Ripple heats up a bolt to loosen it while working with a colleague Thursday to reinstall a hydraulic cylinder to operate one of the plow blades at the Iowa Department of Transportation garage in Marion. “It’s been a really rough winter for our snow plows,” said Craig Bargfrede, the Iowa DOT’s winter operations administrator, in an interview. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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Iowa’s string of winter storms is putting state snowplow drivers and state troopers trying to keep roads passable and assist motorists at risk of crashes this winter.

So far this season, 50 state plows have been struck by drivers, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation — most over the last seven weeks when more trucks were in service due to incessant winter weather conditions.

“It’s been a really rough winter for our snow plows,” said Craig Bargfrede, the Iowa DOT’s winter operations administrator. “This winter, especially in January and February, we’ve had a large number winter weather events back-to-back-to-back, which increased the number of hours our vehicles have spent out on the (roads) across the state. And so we have seen a considerable increase in trucks getting hit.”

According to the Iowa DOT, 18 state plows have been hit this month and 22 were hit in January. Another six were hit in December, one in November and three in October. Most of the trucks were rear-ended or sideswiped by other vehicles, Bargfrede said.

It’s not all that unusual for snowplows to get damaged each winter, Bargfrede said, but the numbers are up this year because of more snow storms and more trucks clearing highways.

Damage to the plow trucks can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, he said. Most commonly, it’s the wings that hang off the sides of the trucks or the spreader system on the back used to spread materials that take the brunt of the hits.

Bargfrede said the combination of winter storms creating hazardous road conditions and motorists not driving with enough caution are the likely culprits in this year’s increase.

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This winter hasn’t just been tough on just Iowa DOT vehicles. Sgt. Alex Dinkla, a public information officer with the Iowa State Patrol, said 12 cruisers have been hit since October, too.

Some involved minor injuries, Dinkla said. According to the Iowa DOT, six cruisers have been hit this month, four more were hit in January and two were hit in October.

“If we look just at the month of February, we’ve had six vehicles that have been either totaled or hit in different types of crashes,” Dinkla said. “Most recently we had the two that were involved in that multivehicle pileup near Newton and we had another cruiser that was hit in western Iowa over near Avoca on Interstate 80, and each of those vehicles sustained disabling severe damage.”

The big pileup Dinkla referred to occurred about noon Feb. 4 on eastbound I-80 near Newton and involved nearly 40 vehicles, including two Iowa State Patrol cruisers.

Icy roads and blizzard-like conditions that day caused the first wreck, Dinkla said, and led to a chain reaction. Two state troopers had stopped and were tending to crash victims when their squad cars were crushed underneath a semi-trailer truck, totaling both.

“That tells us that the vehicles were traveling way too fast for the conditions, because when and incident happened in front of them, they were unable to slow down and stop in time,” he said.

The troopers were not injured, but other motorists were, some of them seriously.

In a majority of the cruiser crashes this winter, they were either rear-ended or sideswiped, Dinkla said, and in many cases, the cruisers were struck when the troopers had stopped to assist with wrecks.

“That’s alarming,” Dinkla said. “You know, in a lot of these wrecks, our officers are just out there doing their job. They have their emergency lights running and they’re already at another crash scene, and another vehicle loses control and hits their cruiser. That’s what we’ve seen is a lot of, and typically the reason that happens is because people are not paying attention and they are not driving with the necessary caution given the road conditions.”

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All the wrecks involving Iowa DOT snowplows and state patrol vehicles occurred on interstates or state highways as those are the roadways the agency is responsible for and that state troopers patrol.

Locally, Cedar Rapids and Linn County manage their own plow operations, as do Johnson County and Iowa City.

Linn County Engineer Brad Ketels said no county plows have been hit this season.

“We have only had one minor accident in the past three years involving one of our plows,” he said.

In Cedar Rapids, Street Operations Manager Mike Duffy said one city plow has been involved in a wreck this season. No one was injured.

The city owns about 90 pieces of snow-removal equipment and maintains about 1,400 lane miles during the winter, he said.

“Accidents generally occur during the storm or immediately afterward,” Duffy said. “We have had equipment hit from behind when visibility is restricted due to blowing snow. We have also had plows hit when our equipment is passed on the right side, and motorists come in contact with the wing blade hanging from the side of the vehicle.”

In Iowa City, one plow has been hit this season, according to Dave Gillham, assistant superintendent of streets and traffic engineering. The vehicle was rear-ended Feb. 5 while stopped at a stoplight, he said, likely due to the motorist not paying attention.

The city has 13 snow-removal vehicles.

A request to the Johnson County engineer for information on the county’s plows was not answered.

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“You know, I think the big message here is that these officers and these plow operators are out there trying to provide service and protection — they’re just trying to do their job and their vehicles are getting hit,” Dinkla said. “And that’s because motorists are not paying attention and they’re likely driving way too fast for the road and weather conditions.

“When we have these winter events, drivers need to slow down, drive with caution and pay attention,” he added, “And if you see flashing lights, slow down, move over and give those troopers or those plow operators or whoever the room they need to do their jobs as safely as possible.”

Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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