Last week an Iowa State Patrol (ISP) officer virtually blamed truck drivers for a massive pileup on Interstate 80 during a winter storm (cover photo).
The tweet said, “Truckers, all you are is an 80.000 pound sled on ice. No driver in this world can stop an 80,000 pound sled on the Highway and all we see is 80,000 pounds sleds causing these massive wrecks.”
The crash involved 40 vehicles, including tractor-trailers and tankers. It happened Feb. 4 about 40 miles east of Des Moines. Drivers lost control on roads as freezing rain, snow and blizzard conditions hit.
But Sgt. Alex Dinkla of the ISP — not the officer who tweeted the previous statement — doesn’t lay all the blame on truckers.
“It’s all vehicles trying to drive and navigate on roads that might be less than desirable to be on,” Dinkla said.
The ISP said pulling off the road during snowstorms could help prevent these situations. Dinkla added that people driving too fast is usually what turns a relatively minor accident into a major chain reaction pileup, leading to long-term road closures. But the ISP has no special fines or penalties for people who drive recklessly on slick roads.
In order to decrease accidents during winter storms, ISP officers help feed information to the Iowa Department of Transportation, which issues travel messages to the public. The day of the I-80 pileup, drivers were warned that travel was not advised.
“If we give out the warning that travel is not advised, that is saying that those roadways are not in the best condition to navigate and drive on,” Dinkla added.
Brenda Neville, president and CEO of the Iowa Motor Truck Association, hinted that it’s not always easy for drivers to pull over/off the roads efficiently or safely. She told FreightWaves, “Winter storms and developing policies relative to weather is very challenging. As an organization we have ongoing discussions regarding the most effective way to operate in these conditions and unfortunately we have not come up with the perfect solution, nor do we have an official guideline/policy for trucking companies.”
Weather can often change quickly. Neville told FreightWaves she will continue to collaborate with law enforcement at the state and local levels, as well as meteorologists and trucking companies, to come up with a variety of solutions.
“I assure you that Iowa trucking companies are always monitoring this [the weather] and keeping the safety of their drivers as well as the safety of other motorists on the road in the forefront at all times,” Neville added.
In Texas, at least nine people died in highway crashes Thursday as roads turned icy. The worst wreck was on I-35W just north of downtown Fort Worth. More than 100 vehicles were involved and six people died. Several tractor-trailers were among the wreckage.
These accidents often raise the question of how trucking companies mitigate hazardous weather. Should they send their drivers through these storms at all? There doesn’t seem to be a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
Some carriers, like Cargo Transporters Inc., use a traditional, autonomous approach that gives their drivers some say in whether they continue through a storm.
Jerry Sigmon Jr., Cargo Transporters’ chief operating officer, told FreightWaves that he is part of a group of operations managers who watch the weather daily. They stay in constant communication with drivers, mainly via in-cab electronic messaging, as they approach potentially dangerous storms.
“We rely on our drivers to tell us when the roads are not safe to be on,” Sigmon said. “I can’t stay here in the office and tell them when it’s safe to drive. They have to make that informed decision based on what they’re seeing right out in front of them.”
Sigmon trusts the drivers to use common sense and make good decisions. He encourages them to pull over if they feel a storm is too dangerous, but there’s no set policy forcing them to do so. They are required to pull over, however, if they need to talk to a manager on their cellphone.
In some situations, Sigmon and the other operations managers will reroute drivers or have them arrive early and wait out storms. However, they don’t feel these are usually the best decisions.
“If you try to get ahead of the storm … you have them [the drivers] park at a truck stop, they get snowed in,” Sigmon explained. “That’s not a good situation. It’s hard to get out.”
The exception is when drivers can park at customers’ facilities that they know are usually kept well-maintained during winter storms.
“If you do a major reroute around a storm, you haven’t really gained anything because you get right back into the storm,” Sigmon explained. “Then you got a lot of extra miles.”
Cargo Transporters, which did not have any drivers involved in the Iowa and Texas crashes, has a fleet of 500 tractors running dry vans across the continental U.S. However, most of its business is up and down the East Coast and in the Ohio Valley. Sigmon said the best strategy for Cargo Transporters’ drivers in the Northeast is to wait out storms and “go in behind the plows” because this region is well equipped to handle harsh winter weather.
Sigmon said Cargo Transporters has been using this approach for at least the past 12 to 14 years, with a good track record.
“I’d like to say that, using this practice, we have mitigated all weather-related accidents. Unfortunately, we have not,” Sigmon admitted. “But it has worked well for us more times than not.”
Other carriers have weather departments consisting of staff members, some meteorologists, working in shifts 24 hours a day. They constantly communicate with their drivers in order to get ground truth about road conditions, requiring them to pull over and shut down in certain situations. The goal is simply to minimize, as much as possible, the number of winter weather-related accidents involving drivers.