The Coquihalla Snowshed Protocol: 10 Steps to Highway Safety


[Note: Yellowhead Road & Bridge (Nicola) Ltd. took over the highway maintenance contract for Service Area 14 as of July 1, 2019]

BC Highway 5 from Hope to Merritt (also known as the Coquihalla or “the Coq”) is a busy transportation corridor through a high mountain pass, and because of this high elevation, the Coquihalla can experience periods of heavy snowfall. Don’t let that worry you though – our maintenance contractor for the route has a plan. It’s called “the Coquihalla Snowshed Protocol” and it’s every bit as important as it sounds. What exactly is the protocol and what does it mean to you? Read on friends.

What is it?
The Coquihalla Snowshed Protocol is the go to plan when the snow hits the fan. It comes into effect when more than 15-20 cm of snowfall over a 12 hour period (or freezing rain conditions) are predicted for the Snowshed corridor and its sole purpose is to make sure we can maintain safe and uninterrupted travel through the corridor during heavy snowfall or other challenging weather event.

How does it work?
Many, many people play a part in the protocol both on and off the road. Here’s how the protocol unfolds in ten steps to help you understand how we are working hard to help you travel the Coq safely in snow events.

  1. The call. The maintenance contractor tracks the weather with special forecasts for the Coquihalla. When more than 15-20 cm of snowfall over a 12 hour period (or freezing rain conditions) are predicted at the summit, they increase communication with the weather forecaster to gather all the information they can about the upcoming storm.
  1. Sound the alert bell! The maintenance contractor quickly notifies us, the Commercial Vehicle Safety Enforcement (CVSE), our Weather and Avalanche folks, as well as flagging and traffic services, tow trucks, and the BC RCMP in Fraser Valley and Merritt, that the protocol is a go. They share their information and secure their services for the upcoming event.
  1. The triple check. The maintenance contractor makes sure their fleet is fuelled and ready to go. They also prepare a call out list for extra staff in case more hands are required on deck.
  1. Staying tuned. The maintenance contractor monitors and shares any updates to the weather forecast with all protocol members.
  1. Get your engines ready: Two hours before the storm: CVSE, flagging, and traffic services are on standby.
    Tow trucks will be stationed at the Zopkios brake check. RCMP will ensure that all passenger vehicles are equipped with proper winter tires at Sowaqua chain up area and enforce chain up at Box Canyon and/or Portia. Traffic control personnel will direct trucks into the chain up at Box Canyon entrance.
  1. And go! As the snow begins to fall, the maintenance contractor will dispatch numerous pieces of snow removal equipment including: plow trucks, tow plow, graders, loaders and snow blowers throughout the corridor dependent on the level of storm forecasted.
  1. Staying on track. As the storm progresses and snow accumulates, there may be a request for the Merritt crew to assist the Coldwater crew. Merritt crews await that call. All equipment is responding to current road conditions or stationed/on standby as the storm progresses. Operators on standby are working in local yards making brine or preparing winter abrasive and salt stockpiles.
  1. Commercial drivers: Chain up.
    The chain up sign (located at Box Canyon) is turned on by the maintenance contractor. This sign tells commercial drivers of vehicles over 11,794 kg licensed GVW that they must chain up before proceeding. Once the chain up sign is on the CVSE will position themselves to ensure commercial drivers obey the sign and enforce if necessary. As soon as conditions permit, the maintenance contractor will then turn the chain up sign off and relay this information to all responding parties.
  2. Constant communication. From the start of the protocol to the end, the maintenance contractor relays any changing condition information to DriveBC.
  3. Safety is the bottom line. If the avalanche hazard and traffic volumes are high, a staging site will be set up at the Sowaqua pullout below Box Canyon. Vehicles will be held there, outside of any avalanche areas, and released as queues on the hill clear.   If there is a vehicle incident or a commercial truck that loses traction, the tow trucks on standby and staff working on the hill ensure a quick response to clear the incident.

Now that you know a bit more about the steps we take to make sure the Coquihalla is safe for travel, we would like to remind you that you play an important part in the Coquihalla Snowshed Protocol too.

  1. Know before you go and check DriveBC. If heavy snowfall is in the forecast or occurring on the Coquihalla and you cannot postpone your trip, be aware that there are other routes available. BC Highway 1 and 3 follow lower elevation routes, often have less snow, and may be a preferred route.
  2. Cars: make sure you have proper winter tires.
  3. Commercial vehicles: make sure you have chains, understand the latest regulations for where they need to be installed on your vehicle, know how to put them on, and chain up if the lights are on. When you are climbing the hill with chains, please remain single file in the cleared lane(s).
  4. Commercial vehicles: you’re required to stay out of the far the left lane of the highway, when travelling northbound on Snowshed Hill, between Box Canyon and Zopkios.
  5. If you do travel over the Coquihalla during the winter – SLOW DOWN and allow extra travel time. Speed limits are set for ideal driving conditions and winter driving conditions are NOT ideal.

Drive to Conditions
We take the safety of the travelling public very seriously. In fact, it’s our number one priority on every highway across the province and the Coquihalla is no exception.

The Coquihalla Snowshed Protocol. We’re ready. Are you?

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Page 1 of 34 comments on “The Coquihalla Snowshed Protocol: 10 Steps to Highway Safety”

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  1. Just want to thank you fine folks for all you do to keep our province moving. We live in a harsh winter climate, and it’s a miracle that we have people willing to work through these conditions to get us to where we need to go safely. Thanks to everyone involved, including plow and heavy equipment operators, flaggers, managers, weather experts, CVSE, and the Mounties for your hard work.

    • Hi Mike. Thank you for leaving your comment here, this recognition means a lot to us and is very much appreciated! We will forward this along to the staff who work to keep our highways safe, and thank you again for your comment.

  2. We used to travel the Coquihalla at least once a year in a snowstorm. I was always impressed by how well the highway was kept up! Yep….there will always be days where the crews just can’t keep up with the snow or freezing rain….but generally they are great at keeping the road open and safe.

    • Hi there Anonymous,

      All BC highways are maintained with the safety of the travelling public as the first priority. This route receives a bit of special treatment due to the volume of traffic nd diversity of use it sees. It is, in a nutshell, vital to the movement of people and goods for British Columbia. Many other areas have winter storm protocols which they put into action during inclement weather or emergency situations. These are run at the district level. If you would like more information about a particular stretch of BC highway, let us know and we can look into it for you. Hope this information is helpful. Safe travels.

  3. This is a fantasy #6&7 just don’t happen YRB is a joke. Why do you lie to people 😒 you don’t put trucks on the road or bring in extras from Merritt. I had to drive 70kph from Merritt to old toll booth area with everyone else because of ice and snow. One plow truck to be seen and the second truck was parked on the side of the road having a coffee break 😳. Variable Speed sign said 120 kph on the ice
    road as we all did 70Kph. This is F- up. I have been driving the Coq before it was open and was a plow driver on it. It’s time for the government to take over and run this shit show of road maintenance again. It’s time to save lives and property. Private doesn’t want to spend money, just make money…….

  4. This sure is a great protocol. We just tavelled over the Coquahalla Feb 15th, and I did not sleep the night before because of worrying about what the road was like. Especially with all the construction. Luckily everyone was driving properly and the road was just wet. No snow, ice etc. Thank you BC for keeping the highway so clear especially with all the construction and repairs that you are doing as well. It was a good drive.

  5. DEC 27 2020 11am
    The Coquihalla is Terrible.!!! Not plowed, deep ruts, so Treacherous!!
    Why is it not sanded/salted or plowed??
    The connector was great, but the Coq was awful, and it is a main corridor to our Okanaghan valley and it was busy today!
    Please reply!

  6. Could you explain to me please ,why on the coquihalla that the snow plows seem very reluctant to lower the plow and plow the snow, my wife and I are truck drivers who regularly use this route and in all other provinces the minute one snowflake is spotted the plow gets lowered, this doesn’t seem to be the case in BC or at least our observation of it

    • Hi Geoff,
      Thanks for your question. Our snow removal techniques depend largely on the weather being experienced. Often when there is heavy snowfall maintenance vehicles will utilize their front plows. Front plows ride on ‘shoes’ that keep the plow lifted slightly to ensure safety for the operator. Graders and belly plows that have the ability to use a downward force to ‘scrape’ are also used but are most effective during the cleanup phase of a storm.

  7. Hello my question to you folks would be why was there no sand on the recently bladed Larsons Hill east bound strip of highway on December 18th?Same situation with the westbound Larson’s Hill side no sand came until there was a problem.If you are clearing do you not automatically salt and brine? Why is blade and sand not combined at the same time? I observed no sand present in both that east and west bound lanes , which surprised me as Larson’s Hill is a definite must for extra caution.. My second observation is this… from the time of toll booths my husband drove the Coq. on a weekly basis through varying of winter conditions. I am saddened to report as well as a job you are doing, it is not the standards of yesteryear. We never had to close a highway and there was usually equipment working both sides of the highway. I am certain the standards have dropped which is why you are getting the response you are from the public. Thank you

    • Hello Lorrie,
      Our maintenance contractor uses many methods to clear snow and restore traction depending upon the exact weather conditions and temperature. Environment Canada has recorded Heavy Snowfall in the past few days in and around Larsen Hill.

      We typically see the heaviest accumulations in and around Snowshed Hill, but we have seen 41cm in the past 24 hrs with deeper pockets in the Larsen Hill area whereas the Snowshed area has seen up to 25cms.

      There is also no mandatory chain up area for commercial vehicles in the Larsen Hill area and as such commercial vehicles do not chain up and find themselves stuck even when there is minimal snow.

      This prevents maintenance vehicles from accessing the roads which means we can sometimes end up with closures until the commercial vehicles are clear and then the road gets caught up.

      Brines and “juice” applications are also done pre-storm to provide a layer between accumulating snow and the pavement which can make it easier to clear residual and compacted snow after the snow event.

      Sand is used to aid traction but unfortunately some of the sand that is applied is blown off the road when vehicles continue to go fast. Many times, when sand is applied we leave it on the road to mix with the snow. Following this it does get plowed off leaving the impression that no sand has been applied.

      Our maintenance contractors are held to the current contractual specifications on a daily basis through an in depth audit and monitoring process which has been in place since 1988. When the toll booths were operating, commercial vehicle use of the highway was limited due to the cost of tolls for commercial vehicles and as such commercial vehicle traffic use was limited use compared to what we are seeing now. That combined with more powerful trucks, able to pull greater weights through mountain passes means we now see in excess of 3500 commercial vehicles a day along the route.

      Currently, one of the main reasons for closure is unprepared commercial drivers causing closures in both light and heavy snowfalls. There are no current rules or laws regarding allowable commercial truck configurations which could limit certain configurations which we know cause most of our issues. We are looking into ways in which we can enforce stricter rules around this issue. Thanks for connecting with us here – we hope that this helps answer some of your concerns.

    • Hello Teresa,

      Thank you for connecting with us here to share your concern. Last Wednesday, the Coquihalla highway received upwards of 70-80cm of snowfall, and VSA (our maintenance contractor for BC Highway 5) was fully deployed and managed to keep the roads in good winter driving conditions. Unfortunately, the storm was immediately followed by freezing rain on compact snow and rapidly dropping temperatures causing very icy road conditions and spun out trucks and vehicles. Spun out trucks prevented VSA’s crews from being able to access, cycle and maintain the highway and the decision was made to close the highway until it could be brought back up to a safe travelling standard. We do not take highway closures lightly, but the safety of the travelling public is our number one concern. Here’s a link to an article by the CBC discussing the recent closures which you might find interesting:

  8. It might save drivers who plan to drive the Coquihalla (and other mountain highways) in winter a visit to the ditch (or worse) if the Ministry of Transportation actually came out and said that all season M+S tires with 3.5 mm tread are NOT SUITABLE for driving in winter storms.

  9. So what do the RCMP say to someone who has low profile, sporty, M+S all season tires with just over the legal 3.5 mm tread on them?

    ‘Your tires are legal and safe according to the Ministry of Transportation?’

    ‘Your tires are legal but you would be an idiot to drive the Coquihalla on them in these conditions?’

    ‘Your tires are legal according to the Ministry of Transportation but if you continue we are going to ticket you anyway because we think they aren’t suitable?’

    • Hi Nick,

      While the BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure is responsible for creating the legislation listed in the BC MVA, enforcement of that legislation is at the discretion of the BC RCMP. You might be interested in reading this blog interviewing BC RCMP Staff Sgt. Pat McTiernan for more information.