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Posted on Fri, Feb 8, 2013 : 2:53 p.m.

Top 5 things I learned from being in the front seat of a Washtenaw County snowplow

By Amy Biolchini


The view of a snowy road near Dexter Friday morning from a Washtenaw County Road Commission plow truck. About two inches of snow fell Thursday night into Friday morning in the area.

Daniel Brenner |

Riding shotgun in a Washtenaw County Road Commission snowplow at 5 a.m. Friday wearing a bright yellow safety vest, I kept asking myself “How did I get here?”

The disbelief faded as the plow truck navigated then-snowy Interstate 94 through the darkness on the west side of Ann Arbor with an ease that my Honda Civic could only dream of.

Scraping slush and spreading salt, the truck’s driver, Dan Clark of Grass Lake, guided the vehicle loaded with 10 tons of salt on a route that is intimately familiar to him and quickly became the same to me as well: I-94 from Zeeb Road to State Street and back again. And again. And again. And again.


Dan Clark

Amy Biolchini |

Documenting the road conditions and weather during Friday morning’s rush hour in real time for, I got a crash course in what it means to be on the front lines when snow falls.

Here are the top five things I learned from the experience:

1. Road conditions change -- fast.

Friday, Clark and 45 other day shift drivers started plowing at 4:30 a.m. Clark began by scraping off the two inches of snow off I-94 and spreading salt in his wake.

The road commission also has a team of four plow truck drivers that work the main interstate highways at night from 8 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. They worked to spread salt to combat the freezing rain that hit the area between 10 p.m. Thursday and midnight.

By the time Clark and I had made the first two passes over his route Friday morning, I-94 was shaping up and by 6:30 a.m., the roadway was clear and the pavement was wet. Traffic had increased and drivers were traveling between 60 and 70 miles per hour.

Clark turned his attention to the on and off ramps for I-94, and we noticed it had started sleeting.

The sleet slowly intensified into flakes of snow. In a matter of 15 minutes, the snow went from melting on the road’s surface to sticking. By 7 a.m. I-94 was covered in a soft cover of snow - undoing two hours of Clark’s work.

Traffic slowed to a respectable 40 miles per hour.

“That’s the biggest bummer of this job,” Clark said.

To drivers that just got on I-94, the road didn’t look like Clark and other plow truck drivers had been working since 4:30 a.m., Clark said.

2. How to tell when a wet road is turning into an icy road.

As a result of working for the road commission for the past eight years, Clark can tell when a road that’s wet from melting snow is turning into ice from his seat in his plow truck.

It’s an important skill, as Clark has to make the call when the road needs to be salted and when the salt that he’s spread on previous passes will still be effective.

Clark offered these tips:

  • Look at the line between lanes of traffic and between the wheel tracks made by other cars. If there’s slush building up, the temperature is likely dropping and ice may be forming.
  • Look at the tires of other cars. If there’s water coming off the tires, the road is still wet. If not, the road is frozen.
  • Check your side mirrors. If it’s cold enough that water on the mirrors is frozen, chances are the road is that cold, too.

3. On a snowy morning, a highway will likely be the clearest roadway.

The Washtenaw County Road Commission targets its initial snow-clearing efforts to 581 lane miles of state highways and primary roads that are its first priority. In Washtenaw County, those include I-94, U.S. 23 and M-14.

Subdivisions and gravel roads are the last on the road commission’s list - and if snow falls on a Friday, there’s a possibility that some of the more minor roads in the county won’t be plowed until Monday, said Jim Harmon, director of operations for the road commission.

This Friday, Harmon said the day shift plow truck crews would be clearing subdivision streets by making one pass down and back on each road. Salt will also be spread down the middle of a subdivision street, but the streets won’t be cleared from curb to curb to make sure the crews can get to as many streets as possible, Harmon said.

4. People don’t often appreciate the plow truck drivers.


Part of Dan Clark's daily snow route Friday morning on eastbound I-94 in southwest Ann Arbor.

Amy Biolchini |

Clark’s job is sometimes thankless. On the road for hours from the wee hours of the morning until late in the afternoon or evening, depending on the weather conditions, it’s nonstop driving - sometimes racking up between 300 and 400 miles per shift, Clark said.

The reaction from other drivers on the road is not always positive. Clark typically travels at about 45 miles per hour when he’s plowing the shoulders of the roadway - which makes some impatient drivers honk their horns or get angry.

“Some people give me the thumbs up, and some people give me the middle finger,” Clark said. “There are a lot of haters out there.”

5. Enjoy the view.

The front seat of the plow truck lends itself to an interesting show on the road.

Though Clark’s regular route covers the same stretch of I-94 from State Street to Zeeb Road in a loop for hours, there’s always something Clark finds amusing.

Sometimes it’s a red-tailed hawk swooping above the tree line. Other times it’s the traffic pattern or an impatient driver.

Friday morning, the real show was the droopy pine trees laden with heavy snow that line the I-94 corridor in southwest Ann Arbor.

Drivers navigated the changing road conditions with minimal problems, and the light snow that had accelerated in several hours between 7 and 8:30 tapered off by 9 a.m.

Amy Biolchini covers Washtenaw County, health and environmental issues for Reach her at (734) 623-2552, or on Twitter.


Kellie Woodhouse

Sun, Feb 10, 2013 : 3:33 p.m.

Sounds like an educational experience, Amy. It's scary how fast road conditions can change.

Andrew Gallagher

Sun, Feb 10, 2013 : 3:22 p.m.

This was a great article. I personally want to thank the Road Commision for the many early mornings they get out there and make this all happen. These are the people who see our days getting longer and sun rising sooner. We all need to make way and indulge the drivers with our patience.


Sat, Feb 9, 2013 : 7:44 p.m.

I'm curious, do they salt every pass they make when they plow? If they make multiple passes on the road during their shift, aren't they just plowing the salt they put down earlier onto the side of the road?


Sat, Feb 9, 2013 : 6:37 p.m.

My hat is off to the WCRC! kudos to each and every one of you! Unbelievable that you get the "middle-finger salute". these complainers oughta be ashamed of themselves.


Sat, Feb 9, 2013 : 3:40 p.m.

#2 is a great tip for all drivers. Thanks

Kai Petainen

Sat, Feb 9, 2013 : 3:16 p.m.

fantastic article!!!

Patty Bradley

Sat, Feb 9, 2013 : 3:06 p.m.

Very nice article. You had a busy day!


Sat, Feb 9, 2013 : 2:46 p.m.

Let's be clear, the drivers do their jobs when they are scheduled to, they don't make policy, operational decisions, or judgement calls (other than what is immediately in front of them). I am by no means upset with the DRIVERS, its further up the chain of command. There has been a steady decline that our family has experienced, during the last 2 years of Winters, which are/were (so far) extremely mild seasons. If the time was given to the Drivers to earn overtime (when warranted) to get the roads cleaned up in a timely, proper fashion, they would be out there. The article would be more enlightening had the Administrators of the WCRC had been followed and their decision making process been looked into during these times. Its not the drivers, its much further up the chain of command that needs to be looked into.


Sat, Feb 9, 2013 : 11:02 p.m.

Amy I am speaking in regards to the ICE build up all over the place on the previous storm when they didn't even have the drivers arrive until 7am, sure NOW that there has been an outcry and a hands on story done, they adjusted some scheduling, time will only tell if they get the message in the long term. Regardless, the drivers can only do what they are ALLOWED to do, with the equipment they have to utilize, all decisions made by others.

Amy Biolchini

Sat, Feb 9, 2013 : 3:53 p.m.

The WCRC directors made the decision Thursday afternoon to schedule the 46-man day shift crew to clock in at 3:45 am Friday because of the forecast. They paid those drivers overtime for the period until 7 am Friday, when their regular shift starts. The road commission is operating with the same amount of funding that it received 50 years ago. Operations guidelines are set by the 3-member, publicly-appointed Road Commission board. Those guidelines include the decision by the board not to authorize overtime hours to clear snow from subdivision and gravel roads unless 4 inches or more of snow has fallen.


Sat, Feb 9, 2013 : 2:34 p.m.

"Some people give me the thumbs up, and some people give me the middle finger," Clark said. "There are a lot of haters out there." Mr. Clark I'm one of the thumbs up "I love you man!" people. The haters are the same careless drivers who drive too fast, tailgate, and believe they can handle the icy roads while texting or yacking on their cell phone. THANK YOU, Mr. Clark, for keeping our roads safe as much as possible.

Amy Biolchini

Sat, Feb 9, 2013 : 2 p.m.

Thanks for the comments, everyone - they really made my day. Many thanks to the Washtenaw County Road Commission for the opportunity and the experience, and to the drivers and staff who put in the long hours to clear the roads.


Sat, Feb 9, 2013 : 11:39 a.m.

Nice article.


Sat, Feb 9, 2013 : 8:29 a.m.

I live in Lenawee County ; while driving Lenawee, Washtenaw, and Monroe counties regularly. For the past 35 years I have experienced the following.... Washtenaw County Road Commission runs circles around the other two combined. In the 80s...I remember many a night driving from A2 to Adrian... via Ridge Hwy. I also remember carefree cruising (post snow storm) from A2 city limits UNTILL I reached the Lenawee County Line via... State/Moon/Stoney Creek/Mooreville/Ridge. Thats when the clean road went to untreated road. As for Monroe County (in Milan Twp) , dead last. The Washtenaw County Road Commission and their policies have had my respect since 1978... Great job guys. If I ever meet any of you in a downtown A2 eating and / or drinking establishment...dinner is on me.


Sat, Feb 9, 2013 : 7:06 a.m.

Thank you Clark! I drive that stretch every morning! You do a great job! 94 was fine when I went out at 7:30. I did 45 and was totally fine with that. So, thank you thank you thank you.


Sat, Feb 9, 2013 : 2:23 a.m.

Amy, Thanks for this story. You really brightened my day. This is what I call real investigative reporting. I can't believe any drivers would give this man the finger. These guys deserve all of our respect.


Sat, Feb 9, 2013 : 1:40 a.m.

I also appreciate the tips and inside story. It's really helpful to know what this kind of job involves, and how experience helps him make decisions about whether to salt roads, etc. Thanks for a great article!

Ryan Munson

Sat, Feb 9, 2013 : 1:37 a.m.

A good video you should watch on snow plow safety guidelines, which runs on CTN:

Jack Baker

Sat, Feb 9, 2013 : 1:26 a.m.

It is "entertaining" to read the comments on on road conditions, school closing decisions, and other topics where commenters are quick to judge the competence, and even the motivations of many very capable and hardworking members of our community. Amy did a nice job helping to look behind the scenes of the WCRC, and could provide similar perspectives on other similar groups. I was particularly amused at the second guessing of AAPS's decision to hold classes today. Randy Trent, AAPS Exec Director of Properties is an incredibly hard working, smart, and experienced manager responsible for 30+ facilities, staff and infrastructure to needed to educate the 16,000+ students in AAPS. He is the point person on making the call if students can be safely transported, and the buildings safely prepared every day in the volatile Michigan winter weather conditions. I can't think of a professional I know that is better suited for this role. I'm sure Randy enjoys most winter mornings he is up between 3:30 and 4:30am, to make the best call he can based on conditions at the time. It would be refreshing if some of the "self anointed experts" that share their opinions so easily, had even a clue as to what actually goes on. I had the opportunity to work closely with many of these people, including the hardworking staff and management of WCRC, and they are deeply committed professionals working hard to improve our roads, schools, and community. Folks, We live in a northern state, with volatile weather where conditions change frequently; I suggest you put your energies into making half the positive impact these professionals make instead of second guessing their decisions and motivations from the "cheap seats". It is a free country, so if you decide to keep posting about topics you so clearly have no understanding of, knock your self out. It's entertaining reading.


Sat, Feb 9, 2013 : 1:19 a.m.

Great Job Amy! Whats next Police ride along? Fire Dept?


Sat, Feb 9, 2013 : 4:18 p.m.

Amy Maybe you could spend a few hours with a local wrecker driver.

Amy Biolchini

Sat, Feb 9, 2013 : 2:05 p.m.

Good question! Though I would love to ride-along with a police patrol or fire department crew, I'm going to leave that to our cops/courts team of Kyle Feldscher and John Counts. I think at least one of them has been on a party patrol with AAPD before.


Sat, Feb 9, 2013 : 12:21 a.m.

Thanks for the "plow eye view" Amy. Nice article ... Good info from the experienced Road Worker about how to tell if wet pavement is getting ready to ice-up.


Fri, Feb 8, 2013 : 10:46 p.m.

That's a big 10-4 Shotgun Salty. (Good job).


Fri, Feb 8, 2013 : 10:35 p.m.

I really enjoyed this article! I think it comes at the perfect time because EVERYONE seems to be giving these guys and gals driving the trucks a VERY hard time on!


Fri, Feb 8, 2013 : 10:17 p.m.

Great Article Amy! One of the best published by since Jan 1! Very Informative! I have a new appreciation of what the plow drivers deal with. Great Tip concerning watching for the condition when a wet pavement turns to an icy pavement. Thanks for getting up so early to cover this story.


Fri, Feb 8, 2013 : 9:32 p.m.

Since you had promised to run me over, I was extra vigilant this morning. No snowplow danger by the Diag, although I almost got stepped on by a pair of Uggs.


Fri, Feb 8, 2013 : 11:21 p.m.

Amy: I know you were joking, I thought it was funny, lol Kyle: cool video!

Kyle Mattson

Fri, Feb 8, 2013 : 9:55 p.m.

BTW DiagSquirrel- Glad to see your made this video from the U!

Amy Biolchini

Fri, Feb 8, 2013 : 9:46 p.m.

My threat to run you over was all in jest. Glad you survived the near-trampling. Those Uggs can be dangerous.

Kyle Feldscher

Fri, Feb 8, 2013 : 8:38 p.m.

People give the snow plow drivers the finger? That's unbelievable. Ohhhhh, excuuuuuse them for making the roads safe to drive on.

Kellie Woodhouse

Sun, Feb 10, 2013 : 3:32 p.m.

Yes, their hard work keeps drivers safe!


Fri, Feb 8, 2013 : 8:29 p.m.

Great article. The drivers never seem to get appreciated enought for all the hard work and hours they put in. They face some pretty bad situations at times. I know I appreciate all that they do! We need them to much for our roads to not have them. Great job to everyone at WCRC. I still believe in you :-)


Fri, Feb 8, 2013 : 9:26 p.m.

Like the article stated, there are many "haters" out there and here!! Great article!


Fri, Feb 8, 2013 : 9:14 p.m.

Hard to believe that you got a thumbs down on this comment. Oh well, it takes all kinds.


Fri, Feb 8, 2013 : 8:19 p.m.

It has been a rough day for all of us. Thanks for being on the front line. Hooha