Highway Hotline still a trusted source

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Ryan Kiedrowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The World-Spectator

When the weather turns sour, one resource many people in this province turn to is the Highway Hotline website. Complete with updated road conditions and incident reports, the biggest attraction is the province-wide map illustrating what roads are in drivable—or otherwise—condition.

The province recently announced six new cameras to the fleet of now 51 at various points along Saskatchewan highways. The new cameras keeping an eye on road conditions are mounted near Dafoe, Naicam, Macklin, Sheho, Blaine Lake and Smeaton with live streaming video footage.

“We look at, say, a remote geographic area where it might be more efficient to have a camera to help determine the quantity of type of highway equipment we might want to deploy,” said David Horth, Assistant Director, Communications and Customer Service Branch with the Ministry of Highways when asked what goes into choosing a possible location for a new camera. “Availability of power is another consideration and then also we’re looking for areas that are not yet covered by cameras. So we’re trying to every year increase our coverage.”

Sometimes road condition updates on the website can seem to not reflect what’s currently on the ground, but Horth says updates are frequent over the 26,000 km of Saskatchewan highways.

“We have eyes that are out there every day and they survey the roads as they go, our snowplow drivers provide information back to the Highway Hotline and any time conditions change, they contact the hotline immediately and it’s updated within minutes,” he said.

Overall, Horth noted the department receives positive feedback regarding the Highway Hotline from people using the resource as a way to decide whether or not to chance the roads.

“People use it as part of their travel planning, and we’re really happy that they do so,” he said. “We try and give enough detail to make it meaningful, but you’re dealing with limited space and a huge network.”

As many locals know, weather conditions can change quickly, making roads downright dangerous in a matter of minutes. When those extreme road conditions occur, road closures are often the next step.

“When we see conditions that are unsafe for our plow drivers, we close the highway and we take them off the highway,” Horth explained. “Obviously, the safety of the people of Saskatchewan is a huge concern to us as public servants. We’re also a pretty big employer, and the safety of our employees is an enormous concern to us as well. We have some policies in place, and if visibility gets to where the people can’t even see the roads they’re plowing, we remove that plow from the road and we change that designation to road closed.”

When drivers encounter snowplows on the highway, there is certain etiquette and safety expected during encounters. The idea of passing a snowplow can place drivers in more danger than they might expect.

“We certainly ask people to wait,” said Horth when asked if it is safe to pass a snowplow. “Plows do travel lower than the normal highway speed when they’re plowing. When they’re moving snow, they create a cloud around them and that can really reduce the visibility. So you don’t really know what’s on the other side of that cloud that you’re entering which can be a very dangerous maneuver.

“Our plows have bright blue and yellow lights, which you’ve probably seen,” he continued. “That’s to increase the visibility. Our plow drivers pull over every 10 kilometres or so. If they have people trailing, they pull over every 10 kilometres or so to let traffic pass. They have to find a spot where it’s safe to pull over, so there are instances where it might not be safe for the plow to pull over. They’re going to wait until they find a good safe spot to get out of the way of the traffic that’s trailing them.”

The safety rules are not limited to a moving snowplow as even when they are pulled over, drivers ought to take care in passing.

“When a snow plow pulls over to allow traffic to pass there, the expectation is that they’re treated like any other emergency vehicle on the road,” Horth explained. “The expectation is that you slow to 60, make that pass safely, and then you can resume to whatever speed you choose to go—up to the maximum, of course. We do always encourage people to drive according to road conditions.”

Though not frequent, vehicle conditions involving snowplows do occur.

“Over the last five years, there have been already more than 30 instances of collisions involving vehicles and plows, and we spend quite a bit of money advertising to encourage people to stay back and stay away from plows,” Horth said. “In the middle of a snow event, the safest piece of road you have is probably about 100 meters behind the plow, because that’s as good as it’s going to get until the weather gives all of us break.”

There is a priority system when it comes to which roads get cleared first. After a major storm event, the goal is to have major highways cleared within six hours, secondary highways within 12 hours and other highways within a day. Given the vast amount of roads in Saskatchewan, this is a tall order.

“We have 26,000 kilometres of roads, we have about 300 snowplows and they’re situated in about 75 locations around the province,” Horth said. “So we’re well situated to handle it, but it’s a big province and as you know, winter in Saskatchewan is a powerful force.”