How to Drive Around Snow Plows in BC

Pop quiz!

You’re driving a two-lane highway after a fresh dumping of snow. You spot the flashing lights of a snow plow up ahead in the left lane. You…

a) Speed up to get ready to pass in the right lane;

b) Maintain speed until you settle in close behind the plow;

c) Flash your high beams until the plow truck pulls over to let you pass;

d) Keep your distance until the plow truck pulls over to allow you to pass.

OK, so this was kind of a rhetorical question. But we’ve placed the answer at the bottom of this post for anyone who needs to confirm.

Snow plow operators are on the roads at all hours in order to make winter driving safer. Clearing snow and laying down deicers and winter abrasives requires the operators to reduce their speed. In order to operate safely, snow plow operators need fellow drivers to be extra cautious around them.

“Please practise patience,” says Mainroad Lower Mainland Contracting general manager Darren Ell.

“Don’t be in a big hurry, because these guys are trying to provide a service to the travelling public. We’re not out there to hinder the flow of traffic. We’re out there trying to keep people safe.”

In the name of “Mr. Plows” everywhere (how could Homer Simpson not get a shout-out in this post?), we’ve put together a list of “do’s and don’ts” to keep in mind next time you’re driving near a snow plow.

Do…

… Give snow plows plenty of space – about 10 car lengths. Salt and winter abrasives, as well as rocks and other debris in the snow, can fly – hitting nearby vehicles and decreasing visibility. Tailgating any vehicle puts you at risk of a collision; tailgating a piece of heavy equipment armed with plows only ups the consequences.

Don’t…

… Pass snow plows. It’s not safe. The plow could be equipped with a wing blade on its left or right side, which can be obstructed by the snow it’s throwing. The plow also may be the first of a series of two to five more plows, staggered diagonally across the road to clear all lanes simultaneously. This practice is called Echelon Plowing, and would require the unwise driver to make multiple unsafe passes.

snow plow road maintenance winter

Do…

… Pull as far over to the right as is safe when you see a snow plow approaching from the opposite direction along an undivided highway. That way, you will be clear of any salt or sand.

Don’t…

… Assume the snow plow operator can see you, especially if you’re driving too close and visibility is poor (which it often is in snowstorms). Your best defense is to keep your distance.

Do…

… Give the snow plow operator a wave when they pull over to let you pass. They’re doing the job for you!

Do you have any tips or questions about driving near snow plows? Let us have it in the comments section below.

 

Quiz Answer: d) Keep your distance until the plow truck pulls over to allow you to pass. (But you knew that, right?)

46 comments on “How to Drive Around Snow Plows in BC”

Leave a Reply to Steve glasson Cancel reply

  1. The Editor,

    Thanks for publicizing good advice. Folks who live and work in heavy snow areas SHOULD know the protocol… urban drivers who don’t usually drive on interior or high altitude highways may not.

    Here’s a related question: while travelling on the Coquihalla Highway, two lanes, the right lane freshly gravelled, the left lane not gravelled and icy, I encountered a large commercial truck, not a snow plough, travelling in the left lane.

    I hung well back, not wanting to pass on the “sui-side” and risk a collision or a rock through the windshield, and waited to see why.

    However, several vehicles passed me, switched to the right lane, and blew past the truck. No air horn in protest.

    I eventually passed on the right too, on a steep grade where the trucker’s speed was slowed to a crawl. He stayed in the left land, but had his emergency flashers on to warn overtaking vehicles of the potential threat posed by his slow speed, so I reckoned he was not asleep at the wheel. There was no plough or gravelling truck ahead of him.
    Curiouser and curiouser.

    The truck caught up with me at The Home Restaurant in. Hope, so I approached the driver, respectfully, to find out why he was driving in the left lane.

    He responded, courteously, that he was better equipped to handle the ungravelled, icy, left lane than smaller vehicles and was thus leaving the right, gravelled lane open for cars and pickups so he wasn’t holding up traffic.

    I thanked him and left thinking, “you learn something new every day!” After more than fifty years of safe driving, on several continents, in every imaginable road condition, I’m still learning!

    So, my questions are, is this a common or widespread practice? I this a legal protocol? Given a choice
    between safe and legal, well, it’s a no-brainer.

    Your comments would be welcome.

    Earnestly yours

    Ramblin’ Ryan Lake
    Clinton. BC.

    Reply
    • Hello there Ramblin’ Ryan – thanks for your message, it’s nice to hear from you again. What an interesting story too. You might be aware that we’ve recently implemented regulation for commercial vehicles to only use the right lane travelling through the snowshed on the Coquihalla. This is specifically because they have been losing traction in the left lane, spinning out and blocking traffic across all lanes. This also stops our maintenance contractors from being able to get past and plowing further up the Coq. Not a good situation, by any means. We understand that many professional commercial truck drivers do pride themselves in their driving ability, which sounds to be the case in this instance. Unfortunately, many commercial drivers have not been able to traverse the hills along this route without issue – which is why we implemented the change. Slower moving vehicles are required to keep right and let others pass by law. So, while this driver felt confident in advising you that his actions were in the best interests of travellers (safer), they are still not legal. We hope that this helps to clarify. If you have any other questions or concerns, please let us know.

      Reply
  2. Had a verbal confrontation with one of your plow ops this morning at around 7:30 am my semi had electrically shutdown through no fail of my own your driver got rude n verbally abusive with me little did he know he was heard n filmed on my phone it’s sad you have such bulliish n immature employees

    Reply
  3. Good Day……

    Prior to the privatization of highway maintenance by the then social credit government in 1988 it was common place to see plows working in groups of 2, 3, even 4 all together resulting in the entire road surface being cleaned all at once. Since that time it is a rarity to see even 2 plows working in tandem. I now read about a far too often occurrence of snow plows or their wings being hit by idiot drivers.

    I would suggest if plows worked in groups, as was the regular pre-1988 practice. It would be safer for all concerned, where as there would be no obvious opportunity for a driver to pass, and the end product would result in complete snow removal on all lanes & shoulders. And hey maybe even a reduction in winter related accidents and ICBC claims.

    Makes Sense To Me…………

    D.L. Swales

    Reply
    • Good afternoon Mr. Swales, thank you for your message.

      The tools we use to battle winter weather on BC highways since privatization have changed significantly. Prior to privatization, we had more crews because we also had smaller maintenance vehicles. These were slower one-tonne trucks which could not hold nearly the amount of sand that newer tandem and tri-axle trucks can hold. Modern trucks also plow at greater speeds and allow for more efficient crew sizes and deployment. We also use cool tools, like the tow plow, to get the job done in one go. We still do plow in tandem (here’s a cool link to see five plows in action: https://www.facebook.com/TranBC/videos/2241174559510559/) when required. The one thing that hasn’t changed post-privatization is our commitment to safety, we still keep that as our number one goal in everything we do. We hope that this information is helpful. Thank you again for taking the time to connect with us here.

      Reply
  4. To make a long story short, I was put into a situation tonight which threatened my and others’ safety, and without any exaggeration, this was due to the aggressive and dangerous driving of a plow driver approaching me from behind as I was driving between Langley and Cloverdale (Surrey) tonight.

    I was shocked to read in the comment section of this article how common is the situation of a plow driver coming up from behind, then “tail-gating” (illegal and reckless driving), flashing high-beams, honking, etc. in order to move small cars out of the way, and then clobber them with snow, utterly blinding them with compact snow too heavy for their wipers to deal with, causing such drivers to brake suddenly, increasing the likelihood of being rear-ended by another driver, or to go flying off the road, perhaps into another car or person.

    It is sad that I even have to open by saying that I am speaking without exaggeration, because what I’m describing truly does sound a bit extreme. But a surprising number of comments on this page describe the same situation.

    I can send more details about my particular encounter to TranBC directly if that works better. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Hello Jonathan,

      Thank you for connecting with us here to share this. We would be interested in hearing more about this incident. Could you please send us the details of the incident (time, location) for follow up. Thanks again.

      Reply
    • Thanks again Jonathan – we have also received your next, more fulsome recount of the event and will share that with our staff for follow up.

      Reply
  5. I was put into a situation tonight which threatened my and others’ safety, and without any exaggeration, this was due to the aggressive and dangerous driving of a plow driver approaching me from behind as I was driving between Langley and Cloverdale (Surrey) tonight.

    I was shocked to read in the comment section of this article how common is the situation of a plow driver coming up from behind, then “tail-gating” (illegal and reckless driving), flashing high-beams, honking, etc. in order to move small cars out of the way, and then clobber them with snow, utterly blinding them with compact snow too heavy for their wipers to deal with, causing such drivers to brake suddenly, increasing the likelihood of being rear-ended by another driver, or to go flying off the road, perhaps into another car or person. In cases where drivers could choose to drive carefully on a semi-passable road without a plow, or choose to be bullied off the road and forced into a dangerous situation in the ditch (which they may not be able to get out of in the freezing cold… and the plow driver would have no idea of what he’s done to them and therefore wouldn’t stop to help or rectify the situation), which one sounds safer?

    It is sad that I even have to open by saying that I am speaking without exaggeration, because what I’m describing truly does sound a bit extreme. But a surprising number of comments on this page describe the same situation. Given the choice of the two situations above, aren’t those particular drivers safer without the particular snow plow/driver present?

    There were very few cars tonight on the stretch of road I mentioned above: In addition to myself, there was one other car which was ahead of me almost the entire time, and the plow driver was at one point about 700-800 meters behind me and the other car. This means that the plow driver had 700-800 metres and 1-2 minutes to position himself and to join us in spacing ourselves out in a reasonable way. But the plow driver got progressively closer until he was right onto my bumper. I do not mean that there was a plow truck on the road somewhere behind me, but I mean that that this driver was dangerously close regardless of the size of vehicle he was driving. If something occurred in front of me and I needed to brake suddenly, the speed, weight, and torque of his vehicle would not allow him to stop before hitting me, and literally plowing *me* off of the road. Tail-gating is not okay, and it is less okay the larger your vehicle is. It is illegal, and it is plainly bullying with utter disregard for the safety and livelihood (and lives) of others.

    After sending me such an aggressive signal of wishing to pass, the plow driver could have backed off so that I myself could slow down in order to carefully move over on the ice. Changing lanes on this ice requires taking your foot off of the gas. But to make matters worse, he only maintained an unsafe position behind me, making it difficult for me to calculate the safest way to sort out this situation. Finally he began honking at me. For context, this is a 4-lane stretch of road, and I and the other car in front of me were occupying the left lane because this was the safe lane. Moving to the right was too slick. The plow wanted to drive quickly through the left lane. It turns out that he was on his way back to headquarters in Cloverdale, as I saw later. Rather than passing us on the right, he attempted to push us out of the left lane. His weight likely gave him incredible traction. Today’s standard vehicles are built to be as light as possible, meaning traction is not the same as a multiple ton vehicle which can understandably make someone feel very confident. In this case, it appeared to be over-confidence. Also his height allowed him to see an open road in front of our two smaller cars, likely causing frustration that he couldn’t pass through the open stretch of road which he could see. We just wished to get all the way down that stretch of road as safely as possible, even if it took an extra 2 minutes from our lives.

    Needing to make split-second decisions about which of my two options was the least dangerous (not the most safe, but the least dangerous) is very difficult to do when being asserted upon in such an aggressive way and using a very large machine to do so. Looking at my right-side mirror, I wondered if his plow blade was down (and therefore if I moved into the right (more icy) lane, would I be subject to a blast of compact snow which a car’s wipers often cannot deal with?) In the side mirror, the visibility in the right lane behind me appeared to be clear, which allowed me to assume his plow blade was up. Without the plow driver giving me any space to slow down (did I mention we were going up a hill and taking my foot off the gas could cause me to lose momentum enough to lead to a collision?), but one needs to slow down in order to make a maneuver from an icy lane into an even icier lane. At a very gentle angle, I proceeded to switch lanes, which took some time and probably frustrated him more. As he passed me, his plow blade was at this point certainly down and I learned the hard way that it was not safe for me to have moved over, simply in order to help a person drive in a way that endangers others. Was a run-away child driving this machine? I was blinded at this point.

    Now quickly — Does a blinded driver brake suddenly and risk a rear-ending/pile-up situation, or do they roll forward without a sense of direction and hit something? Quick! What’s the answer?! Do you think drivers who are put into shock like this can make such a decision on the spot? You’ll be surprised when you yourself are placed into the same situation where every half-second counts, but it unfortunately took you a whole second to respond. I’ve trained myself over the years to smack the wipers up to maximum (for example, on a rainy day when I’m about to have a huge puddle splashed over my windshield by a big truck), and as I reacted in the same way tonight, the amount of compact snow he blasted onto me was fortunately wiped away by my wipers. But I can’t say the same for the other car on the road ahead of me.

    Again, I and the other car were intending to occupy the left lane in this situation because it was the less dangerous lane tonight. This second car, still in the left lane, was driving carefully for the conditions. And the snow plow driver employed the exact same aggression tactics, tail-gating the next driver. Once again this means that the plow truck with its weight and torque would have no ability to brake in time to avoid a collision if the driver in front of him needed to brake for any reason.

    Next the plow driver began honking at this car as he did with me, and you could tell that the driver of that car was trying his/her best to react… but without being given the physical space to do so in such icy conditions. The driver of the car gave in and moved over into the right lane where I still was driving, meaning I was now directly behind him/her again. And again the plow blade was down in this situation because this second car was forced to brake (was blinded) and the driver of the car continued to brake, almost appearing to need to stop completely until they could recover, probably adjusting the wipers with shaking fingers, etc. This caused me to brake as much as I could so that I did not get too close. It caused me to wonder, are we drivers doing something wrong or illegal in the presence of a plow?, but everything in this situation told me I needed to get a licence plate. No one drives this aggressively.

    I maneuvered around the car in front of me, and as I came down the hill into Cloverdale, I was somewhere behind the plow with the added cars in Cloverdale between us. A few traffic lights allowed me to get close enough to see that there aren’t any visible BC licence plates on the rear of these plow trucks (and everyone’s plates, mine included, were obscured tonight anyway by the snow). The plow truck pulled onto a service road where I thought it might seek to park and I might be able to get a photo of its front licence plate or fleet number on the side. But the truck pulled into what was its base of operations, into the yard behind the office building which is restricted access. The driver was returning to headquarters, perhaps the end of a shift or a break… he lost precious seconds on his way back to the office, and drove in what appeared to be an aggressive fit, and endangered our safety until he got his way (and endangered us even after getting his way by plowing compact snow onto us). He could have very easily stayed 100 (even 50… even 10!) meters behind us. All other cars would have stayed behind him, as is the law, and we would have stayed in front of him, which is perfectly legal. As thankful as I am for plows (they are like angels on the highway), it goes without saying that we would have been safer on an unplowed road in this particular situation tonight.

    I’m afraid I’ll get someone fired and I hope that is not what happens as I spent the evening helping a homeless man out of the cold, but if someone is driving as though they are on a video game (without consequences), then I need to ask about training, maturity, mental health, professional development strategies in this company, etc.

    I was fine. But I can’t imagine this happening to my wife who doesn’t have the same driving experience and couldn’t deal with the stress in the same way. And that is why I am writing. For her and for the driver in front of me tonight, and for all the others. How many people out there has this happened to? Based on the other comments here, it sounds like a lot. It’s so weird that this situation is found in so many contexts all over the province, including all of the instances not reported. Our safety is at stake; in addition to “reaching out to” individual companies, wouldn’t you agree that a higher-level (provincial-level) strategy is required to get this repeated problem in check?

    As stated in the comments here, there is no law regarding what to do if you find yourself in front of a plow, and the advice is to move over when it is safe to do so. Of course! And there definitely would have been a safe way for me to move into the more dangerous of two lanes tonight. But this plow driver maintained such a close proximity that he eliminated the “when it is safe to do so” part from the equation. I can’t believe I’m even here writing about this happening. But if this is happening commonly and forcing drivers into danger, then I sincerely encourage TranBC to form a strategy for the safety of drivers who otherwise would have made it safely to their destination based on their own careful driving and without the ‘assistance’ of frustrated plow drivers.

    Reply
    • Hello again Jonathan,

      Our local area manager would like to thank you for bringing this forward to us, so we can ensure our contractors follow safe use of equipment during winter operations. Your comment will be followed up with our contractor for investigation and to take any corrective measures to correct the behaviour. Could you kindly confirm the exact location and time of this event? Thank you again.

      Reply
  6. I have read comments about this, but there was no clear answer. What if a snow plow is approaching me from behind, and clearly moving faster than me? Am I supposed to do anything so they can get in front of me and clear the way?

    Reply
    • Hi Renee,
      Great question. There is no law on this, and indeed a person cannot get out of the way until they find a safe and open area to let a now plow pass. Many roads are narrow for quite some distance, so if you do want to let a snow plow pass, it can only be done when there is a safe opportunity.

      Snow plows do not tend to plow at high speed, so they are moving most often below the posted speed of a rural highway. Therefore if the road user is also traveling slow, it is likely due to the road surface conditions, as such, we know that if a safe opportunity presents itself, we would allow the snow plow to pass, as it makes the road easier to drive upon.

      Reply
    • Good afternoon Margaret,

      Thanks for your comment. We shared your question with our operations staff and they let us know that they can technically be put on a switch but it is not likely that they ever would be as it would be a significant safety concern for drivers unable to see people close behind them. If your concern is within a municipality, we encourage you to contact that municipality directly, as that falls outside of our jurisdiction. Hope that this helps.

      Reply
  7. D . never pass until the operator signals all clear to pass a snow plow .on the right side this invites a huge blast of snow from the one way or underbody plow. that place a load of heavy snow and slush on your windshield . that the windshield wipers wont wipe away. impeding your visibility

    Reply
  8. I do have a question. I was on the Coquihalla heading to Vancouver. About 30 kms west of Kamloops. It was 6:30am and still dark. I came upon a plow with one of those trailer plows that they drag off to the side. As I was approaching, he straightened out the trailer, raised the plows and slowed down a little. He was in the fast lane and was staying there apparently. I did pass on the right. Was that a correct and safe assumption to make that he intended to stay in the left lane or, will they move into the slow lane so I can stay in and pass in the fast lane?.
    Thanx

    Reply
    • Hi Sean – it sounds to us like he was trying to give you an opportunity to pass (probably needing to focus on the through lane).

      Best practice is to wait until the lights are off and the operator moves over to the right lane to pass.

      Thanks for your comment!

      Reply
    • Hi Ryan – when a plow has its lights flashing, please do not pass. You could be sprayed with gravel or sand or not see another aspect of the work it is doing. The plow operator will turn off its lights and let you pass when they are done. Best to just be patient. Thanks!

      Reply
  9. Plows can throw chunks of ice, rocks and other debris burried in the snow. If passing(in either direction) these items can smash a windshield or worse go through and kill you.

    Reply
  10. It always amazes me when people pass a snowplow doing the speed limit to drive on an unplowed road. Its winter time in BC.. why not give yourself an extra 10 and drive on a freshly plowed road?

    Reply
  11. the motor vehicle act calls fro lighting on the outside edges of vehicles why is there amber colored warning lamp mounted aprox 1 foot above the RH snow wing to advise people that the wing is down and creating an obstuction in the cloud of snow

    Reply
    • Hi Robert and thanks for your comment. We are trying to understand your question and need to clarify – are you saying there should be a warning light above the wing blade as a visual? It is illegal to pass a plow on the right.

      Reply
  12. Can someone please confirm if passing a snow plow with flashing lights is illegal, or just inconsiderate and dangerous.

    I keep reading tweets from Drive BC asking motorists not to pass snow plows but no mention if this is BC Motor Vehicle Law or just a request.

    Please confirm.

    Reply
    • Hello Dan,

      Yes, passing a snow plow is a violation of the BC MVA. Under the act, a vehicle which passes a plow on a stretch of highway which is signed with sign R-022-2Ta (Do not pass snowplows), is subject to a fine for disobeying a traffic control device. Please give snow plow operators the space they need to clear the highway. They have a very important job to do keeping our highways safe and will pull over and let traffic pass as soon as they are able. Hope that this helps!

      Reply
  13. What is the standard for plows passing vehicles? We were just ran off the highway coming into Salmon Arm. The plow came up behind us, repeatedly flashing its high beams at us (and yes we were driving slowly but the snow was heavy coming down and conditions were terrible). We were forced onto the shoulder as he didn’t slow down as he approached us. He passed us – in our lane because we were forced off th road and he kept his blade down. Our vehicle was completely covered with heavy compact snow. The entire left side of the vehicle was covered to where we couldn’t see out our windows. Am I missing something? I’m not exactly sure how we could have done anything differently and we are lucky he didn’t kill us. needless to say it was pretty terrifying. After that he then tailgated the much smaller vehicle in front of us for 15 minutes until he too was forced off the road. I’ve have photos of my vehicle covered in the snow if anyone at MoTi would like them

    Reply
    • Hello Deanna,

      Our area manager is looking into this further and would like to contact you directly to collect more information about the date, time and location where this occurred. Are you okay with us sharing the email address you provided?

      Reply
      • Hi, I’m curious to your thoughts for Deanna’s experience as I had a similar experience on Island Highway near Nanaimo this past weekend. My boyfriend was driving in the right lane when we heard a rumbling noise and before we knew it, a snow plow passed us at a high speed on the left hand lane and in the process, splashed snow onto our vehicle covering the whole left side and all the windows. I also felt the car move slightly to the right as the momentum of the snow hit our car. It was quite scary and I’m thankful my boyfriend remained calm during the whole ordeal. We had to pull off to the right when it was safe to clear our windows before continuing on our way. We were too shocked at the time and wanted to clear our windows so we could drive safely again so did not take photos. It happened around 4:20pm on Sunday February 5th, 2017 on Island Highway near Ware Road. We were leaving Nanaimo and heading in the direction of Lantzville. Thanks.

        Reply
      • This same thing happened to me as well not once but twice in the past two weeks. I travel to and from work between whistler and Squamish on hwy 99. I lost control of my car both times with my 9 year old in the back.i was driving the speed limit, the plow flew past me at least 30k faster. I’m terrified to drive to work when it snows because of this.

        Reply
        • Hi Julie,

          We have shared your concern with the local area manager who will be contacting you and the MC directly to follow up. Thanks for letting us know.

          Reply
  14. I would never pass a working snow plow. Many years ago, driving back from Tofino, I got to the top of Sutton Pass and snow. Slick, greasy stuff. I carefully backed up about a quarter mile to a pull out. Within 25 minutes a snow plow came by. I followed a discrete distance all the way into Port Alberni. THANKS.

    Reply
  15. it should also be noted that the trucks with the blades up and no flashing lights could still be sanding,even though the lights on the sanders should be on when sanding, I have been caught twice this winter,

    Reply
  16. There are situations where snowplow operators do wish motorists to pass. These will generally occur when there is sufficient space to do so. Pulling off the road to let vehicles by can leave a wall of snow which nobody wants. As the article says, please be patient but it is not true that you should never pass a plow.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the comment, Brendan. We consulted Darren from Mainroad Contracting (he’s featured in the post) about your point. There are instances on a multi-lane highway where the plow is in the far right slow lane, and there may be room to pass safely in the far left fast lane. The level of safety depends on other factors, such as visibility. And if echelon plowing is happening, the driver will quickly come upon the lead plow in the far left lane and be unable to pass. In the end, it’s still best to keep a safe distance behind snow plows, and especially important never to pass on the right of a snow plow.

      We’re not sure what you mean when you refer to “a wall of snow” being created when the plow pulls over to allow others to pass. The snow is usually pushed to the right, so when the truck pulls over to the right then the windrow, or snow pack, will be on the far right of the plow, possibly on the shoulder.

      Reply
      • You’re right, Pat. A ministry staff member just pointed that out to us, too. I edited our comment above to read “usually” rather than “always.” Thanks for the comment.

        Reply