Editorial: City Mandates Rest for Plow Drivers

  • Lebanon plow trucks load up with sand and salt at the city garage in Lebanon, N.H., on Nov. 26, 2018. Bad weather was in the forecast. Plow drivers will now be limited to 16-hour shifts for safety reasons. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Anyone who’s ever plowed snow knows it’s no joyride. Operating a multi-ton vehicle in hazardous conditions — especially those like the heavy, slick snow that has caused havoc around the region this week — while simultaneously monitoring the vehicle’s systems, the roadway, other drivers and the weather is demanding work. And anyone who’s ever fallen asleep at the wheel knows it’s frighteningly easy to do.

Lebanon is attempting to address those realities with a new policy that limits the city’s plow truck drivers to a maximum work shift of 16 consecutive hours. City Manager Shaun Mulholland and Mayor Sue Prentiss are, correctly in our view, prioritizing the safety of both the city’s employees and others on the road. Working 32 straight hours, as some public works employees have done in past storms, is not safe, healthy or sustainable. It remains to be seen, however, exactly what kinds of compromises will be required by this new policy and whether those compromises will be tolerable to residents and motorists.

In his previous job as town administrator in Allenstown, N.H., Mulholland instituted driver work limits following a number of incidents involving town snowplows, but such policies are uncommon in the region. As staff writer Tim Camerato reported on Tuesday, Lebanon is now one of the few communities in the Upper Valley to put a formal limit on the number of hours a municipal snowplow driver can be on the road without a break.

Federal regulations, of course, put strict limits on the number of hours commercial drivers can work before a required rest break. The driver of a truck hauling freight, for instance, is limited to 11 hours of driving in a 14-hour shift. Drivers of vehicles carrying passengers are limited to 10 hours.

But municipal and state snowplows are considered emergency vehicles — clearing the roads during and after a storm is obviously an urgent safety matter — and are therefore exempt from those federal limits. And while New Hampshire state policy directs drivers to take a two-hour break after 12 hours on the road, “We let plow drivers regulate themselves,” NHDOT engineer Doug King told Camerato. “They know better than we do. ... When they get tired, they take a rest.”

Vermont’s practice is to require state snowplow drivers to take a break after 16 hours, according to Agency of Transportation district administrator Tammy Ellis, although that’s an informal guideline. “In general terms, we try to operate as safely as we can but we also have limitations on staffing and personnel,” she told Camerato.

State and municipal officials address those limitations in a variety of ways. VTrans enlists state employees with commercial driver’s licenses to serve as substitute plow drivers during big storms. Lebanon depends on NHDOT to clear major state roadways such as Route 12A and Route 120. Enfield and Plainfield pitch in on sections of Methodist Hill Road and Old Country Road. These sorts of collaborative efforts will have to continue, and likely be expanded, to fill whatever staffing gaps may be created by Lebanon’s new policy.

The city also may have to revisit its 2008 snow removal and ice control plan, which Mulholland told the City Council has resulted in “a very high level of roadway maintenance that I haven’t seen in many other communities.” Roads, sidewalks and parking lots are cleared of snow more quickly than most other places, he said, and limiting worker shifts to allow them to get the rest necessary to operate safely may mean that city parking lots, for example, may not be cleared within 24 hours of the end of a storm as is the policy now. “We’re not always going to be able to meet that (goal) with these heavier storms,” he told the council.

Clearing snow from the roads quickly is a point of pride with highway workers in northern New England. Their rallying cry goes something like, “Blacktop will show before the end of snow.” And having the roads — and the sidewalks and the parking lots — cleared quickly is a priority for residents. It is no surprise that the mayor hears from people when they think the city’s snow removal efforts are falling short. That’s as it should be. Having snowplow drivers work for 32 straight hours is dangerous, and having citizens walk or drive on snowy or icy roads any longer than absolutely necessary is unsafe, as well.

One possible approach is hiring additional part-time staff to help during big storms. Another is to contract with private companies as necessary to cover certain plow routes. And city residents certainly may have to adjust their expectations, if not their travel routes. They may also have to pay higher taxes to cover the new arrangements.

Whatever solution is arrived at, it’s good to know that the city’s new policy will allow the hard-working people driving the city’s snowplows to get the rest they need to do their important jobs safely.