Take a Chill Pill

Charlie enjoying the snow on Dec. 9, 2012

On Sunday, December 9, my birthday, the snow was falling fast. Baby Charlie had been growing increasingly cranky as the weekend progressed and was running a fever off and on, which we incorrectly attributed to teething. None-the-less, determined to enjoy cookie baking with friends, I climbed into my husband’s hulking Ford F150 and made the slow and treacherous journey down to River Falls and back. Overnight, Charlie’s misery intensified (and thusly ours as well), and first thing Monday morning I called into the doctor for an appointment, somewhat oblivious to the state of the roads outside.As it is with all such days, Gary had left early in the morning for out-of town business, which left me alone with a screaming baby and oodles of snow. With fifteen minutes to spare, I hopped into my Prius, backed down the driveway and planted myself firmly into a foot or more of snow coating the road in front of my house. Meanwhile, the church across the street was preparing for a funeral and a hearse was similarly trapped at the corner, half a block from the building entrance. “We’ll be back to help you in a minute!” the pallbearers cheerfully called to me as they lugged the coffin through the snow to the church. Seconds later, two neighbors converged on my car with shovels and pushed it back into the driveway, a stroke of luck, as the city plow came through and cleared the street a minute after that.

An hour later, I left the doctor’s office, swung by the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for Charlie’s ear infection and then headed home, only to get stuck again two blocks away from my house. This time, new people stopped to help, including a woman walking her dog and a man with a truck and a chain, who quickly pulled me out of the intersection. I took an alternative route home, only to discover that the entrance to my driveway was now blocked with a wall of snow. I hopped out to begin shoveling but before I had even begun, a man plowing the church sidewalk came over and saved me again.

I was reminded of two important lessons that day. One, is that people in Minnesota are undeniably nice, and always there to lend a helping hand. The second, is that when the roads are snowy and icy, it’s best to stay off of them.

In recent years, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has modified its winter plowing and salting procedures to avoid contaminating groundwater resources as well as lakes and streams. Plow drivers have been trained to pre-treat roads when storms are forecasted, precisely measure the rate of salt and chemical application, and target salt to the areas that need it the most – intersections, hills and curves. Several communities in Washington County, including Stillwater, Woodbury and Cottage Grove, have made similar changes. They have retrofitted their fleets with GPS and pavement temperature sensors to help road crews target deicing efforts to the trouble spots that need the most help. Smarter winter maintenance has allowed the state and local communities to cut back on salt usage, which saves money in addition to protecting our surface and groundwater resources. As members of the public, however, we also play a role in ensuring safe roads and clean water.

No matter how quickly or how efficiently our plow drivers work, they can’t clear every road the minute the snow stops falling, and expecting them to keep roads safe in the middle of a blizzard is highly unreasonable. People like me need to take responsibility for ourselves and avoid driving during big snow storms unless we really need to (and cookie baking might not qualify). If possible, we should also try to stay off city streets until the plows have had a chance to pass through, since they will be more effective if the snow hasn’t yet been compacted by the weight of 100 cars. When roads are slippery, it is tempting to call for more salt, but remember that dry rock salt is completely ineffective at melting ice when temperatures are less than 10º and only minimally effective at temperatures less than 15º. Furthermore, when roads are slippery due to snow, not ice, the answer is more plowing, not more salt. Either way, it is our responsibility to take a chill pill and slow down while we’re driving in the winter.

You’ll be happy to hear that I spent the rest of my day on Dec. 10 snuggled inside with a baby in my lap. By Tuesday morning, Charlie was feeling better and the roads were passable again. Sometimes, when winter picks a fight, it’s best to just let it win.