It Takes Two: Winter Highway Maintenance and Safe Driving

snow plow and digital message sign

Snow. Now you see it; now you don’t. Yeah, we wish.

Snow will fall on the roads, and there will inevitably be a period before it can be cleared. Winter conditions are a reality on BC highways.

So, while our maintenance contractors are required to meet or exceed very specific contractual obligations, drivers are personally responsible for preparing their vehicles and honing their safe driving skills for moments when snow, ice and poor visibility are simply unavoidable.

We all have a role to play for safe winter driving. Neither role is easy.

Snow will fall… and fall… and fall…

We all have different expectations for what a well-maintained road should look like at any given time in winter; however, the reality is, no matter how well the plows, sanders and salters meet their winter maintenance specifications, there will be times when the roads have winter conditions.

For example, even moderate snowfall rates of 2-5 cm per hour can cover plowed roads and abrasives quickly. Heavy snowfall rates of 5 cm per hour or greater are very challenging to keep up with, hence the limits on how much standing, unplowed snow can be on any given road, based on road classification.

Table 1

Amount of standing, unplowed snow allowed at any given time
A Class Roads 4 cm one lane, 8 cm second, 12 cm third
E Class Roads 25 cm

Note, the improved contracts do not limit the hours or effort the contractors must employ to meet the clear roads standards. If necessary, they will be in 24/7 mode – operating around the clock – and hire additional private trucks, equipping them with plows and sanders to meet the conditions. There is more about maintenance contract specifications at the end of this blog.

So, where are the plows?!

It’s not uncommon for people to report they didn’t see a plow travelling their direction on their trip from Point A to Point B, as if proof our maintenance contractors are on an extended coffee break. Not true. In fact, this is normal. It’s very likely a maintenance vehicle was travelling right behind them or just ahead – depending where they are in their patrol. Unless a traveller sits at one location for 90 minutes to 4 hours (as per winter patrol specifications in Table 2 below, which vary depending on current and forecasted weather), they might not see any maintenance vehicles working on the road.

That said, are they perfect? No. Maintenance contractors make mistakes. And when they do, it is our operations staff’s job to work with them to identify what went wrong and make improvements moving forward.

If you see a problem on the road, whether winter related or not, please reach out to our maintenance contractors. They are available via phone through the DriveBC Report a Problem tool and via social media.

Chaining up is necessary

We’ve been asked before: can’t highway maintenance contractors just maintain the roads to the point that chains and winter tires aren’t needed?

Short answer: no. Sorry, they can’t.

As much as our maintenance contractors battle the elements to reduce severity, winter road conditions are a fact of life. Plowing, salting, sanding etc. are simply one aspect of winter driving safety.

Your role begins long before the moment you’re tightly gripping the steering wheel through a whiteout. It starts with vehicle preparation.

For commercial truck drivers, that means carrying the right type and number of chains and knowing how to install them. In 2018, we introduced stricter chain-up rules in the wake of one of our worst winter for highway closures, when unprepared commercial trucks caused 41 closures because they were either poorly equipped or totally unequipped with chains.

Many of our highways follow steep grades through mountain passes. Commercial trucks can spin out while climbing over a mountain pass, even when the road is maintained to spec. In fact, trucks have been known to spin out on as little as 1 cm of snow, so chaining up when needed is essential.

For the average passenger vehicle driver, being properly equipped means having four matched winter tires with good tread. While mud and snow (AKA M+S) tires are legal, we recommend drivers install 3-peaked mountain/snowflake tires for cold weather and severe winter driving. Here’s how to tell the difference.

Other vehicle prep necessities include:

tweet about maintenance

tweet kudos for maintenance contractor
Early morning Twitter conversation about Coquihalla highway maintenance.

Why compact snow and ice can be so tricky to deal with

Extreme. Erratic. Relentless.

That’s the cold, hard reality of winter in BC for you. And each region has its own microclimates with less-than-endearing qualities – from the wet, heavy snow of the coast to the freeze/thaw rollercoaster of the Interior and the harsh, dry cold of the north. Not to mention BC’s more than 50 high mountain passes, where weather can turn extreme at a moment’s notice.

In all regions, our contractors schedule maintenance activities based on in-depth weather forecasting. This proactive approach to severe weather includes managing adequate staffing levels and applying anti-icing brine (AKA salt) to prevent snow and ice from forming and bonding to the road.

Problem is, brine only effectively melts snow/ice and prevents freezing when the air and road surface temperatures are -7 C or warmer. Once applied, it needs time to do its thing (at least a couple hours) before the plows can roll through and clear the slush prior to refreezing. Timing is key!

When temperatures are too cold for salt, contractors can use chemicals that lower the freeze points to below -9 C; however, the refreezing of chemically treated snow and ice is extremely difficult to remove and quite often takes mechanical force (i.e. graders).

Winter abrasives (sand or small aggregate) is also an option, but sand (as well as salt, for that matter) is often blown off the road by vehicles and wind. Contractors continue to reapply as needed but, when factoring in the necessary time it takes to restock the salters/sanders, combined with the amount of ground to cover, it can be like running on a hamster wheel.

Keep in mind, compact snow is common and completely acceptable during winter months, depending on forecasted weather and temperatures. As the table of contract improvements above indicates, contractors are required to start removal of compact snow as temps warm above -9 C and are forecasted to continue warming.

Incidents and access for equipment

When an incident does close a highway – whether it’s a crash or simply a spun-out commercial truck without chains (ugh!) – a domino effect follows, often while snow continues to fall.

First, plow trucks and other maintenance equipment can’t appear out of nowhere; they must make their way through moving and stopped traffic just like everybody else. This takes time, especially when there is a significant backup on a divided highway. So, if traffic is blocked and you are stuck in it there is likely a plow also stuck in traffic. All the while, snow continues to build up on the inaccessible portion of road.

At times, there are ways to speed up travel time to the site (i.e. accessing from the opposite direction if it’s less congested) but delays are still a reality.

The second domino to fall in this scenario: all the stopped, idling vehicles turn the surface to compact ice as they wait for the highway to reopen, putting more demand on the equipment trying to access and clear the area so the highway is safe to reopen.

Once the highway can reopen, a third domino threatens to topple: Ill-equipped vehicles (i.e. trucks without chains or passenger vehicles without good winter tires) are at risk of spinning out while trying to continue on their way on compact snow and ice, especially if travelling a steep grade. Alas, the cycle continues!

Driving behaviour matters

Reducing crashes and closures with safe winter driving starts with an acceptance that winter conditions are not ideal conditions. Sounds simple, right? It should be – yet, impatience and a general refusal to adapt to conditions leads to loss of control and collisions.

“Drive to conditions” is a mantra we’ve been repeating for a long time. This requires recognizing that speed limits are based on what is safe in ideal conditions – picture bare, dry roads and balmy, clear weather. When rain, snow, fog, or anything else impacts conditions, drivers are expected to slow down. We even have Variable Speed Limit Systems (VSLS) installed on certain highways to help drivers adapt their speed.

In winter conditions, everyone needs more time to stop and maneuver. So, leave lots of space between you and other vehicles. Avoid sudden moves. Accelerate and brake slowly to maintain traction.

When you come across a plow, salter or sander, give the operator lots of space to do their job. Tailgating and/or attempting to pass while snow and winter abrasives are flying is asking for vehicle damage from debris or, worse, a collision. Wait until the operator pulls over to safely pass.

What to expect from maintenance contract specifications

Now that we’ve explored the responsibilities of highway maintenance contractors and drivers, let’s go over some of the winter conditions you can expect to experience by reviewing some key changes to the latest contracts.

Here are the most notable changes to the newest maintenance contracts, which were developed in 2018:

Table 2

New Contract Specification Old Contract Specification
Bare pavement in less than 24 hours when -9C or warmer on Class A highway Bare pavement in less than 48 hours, but compact snow allowed during extended cold periods
Compact snow surface allowed when -9C or colder, but surface kept free of holes and ruts No specification in place
Pre-treat roads with anti-icing chemicals prior to winter event No specification in place
90-minute patrol frequency during winter event on Class A highway 4-hour patrol frequency during winter event on Class A highway
4-hour patrol frequency when winter event forecasted on Class A highway 24-hour patrol frequency when winter event forecasted on Class A highway
9.5 mm maximum winter abrasive size* 12.5 mm maximum winter abrasive size

*Smaller abrasives will reduce potential windshield damage

You’ll notice that getting down to bare pavement will not always be required, nor is it always possible to achieve during extreme cold spells.

The standards for any given highway or sideroad depend on that road’s winter highway classification: A, B, C, D, E and F, with priority starting at Class A roads (sorry E and F, it’s not personal, it’s about traffic volumes and types).

To be blunt, contractual requirements – although demanding – don’t always jive with people’s expectations for the roads they travel.

Highway classification is a big topic in and of itself, so we have a whole separate blog you can refer to, but we should be clear that we, as the ministry, are very much involved with winter maintenance; ministry staff conduct audits and regularly monitor results of maintenance activities. This includes patrolling 24/7 during winter storms to ensure compliance.

In fact, we have more than 100 staff that regularly monitor and audit the contractors and, as part of our quality control, we conduct more than 15,000 monitoring records and more than 1,700 local audits across the province (on average). We also conduct independent audits in each service area to validate the findings of the monitoring records and local audits. To further review the performance of maintenance contractors, we meet with key stakeholders twice a year.

Our maintenance contractors have a tough and often thankless job working in difficult conditions. After all, they are only human – not magicians – and winter driving safety is not a one-person show.

It takes all of us.

Hopefully this blog helps you see the relationship between maintenance workers and drivers in a new light. We touched on some of the factors that make up the cold reality of winter driving in BC. With weather getting more extreme in recent years and natural disasters significantly impacting main routes, it appears there will be no shortage of challenges in the future.

If you’re interested in learning more about how we contend with nature to keep you moving, check out the following:

>> Avalanche control blog archive

>> Improving wildlife safety blog archive

>> Road maintenance blog archive

Share this page:SharingFacebookTwitterLinkedInCopy Text

Page 1 of 17 comments on “It Takes Two: Winter Highway Maintenance and Safe Driving”

Leave a Comment

  1. After spending 15 years in Highway and Bridge Maintenance Methods and another 20 years as a Contract Administrator/Area Manager this article from the Provincial Government is very disappointing. At one time the focus was on safety of the customer/taxpayer and keeping the highways open. This was collectively achieved between the Maintenance Contractor and the Ministry. Unfortunately we have lost caring about the customer/taxpayer transitioning from the Contract Administration of Quality Control to Quality Assurance to Quality Auditing. The mention of Quality Control in the report is misleading, the method being applied today is after the fact or reactive! The damage is done! Quite different then the Quality Control from years ago. As is Quality Auditing which is the flavour of today, sounds efficient, but doesn’t seem to have any consequences. Over the years I have noticed a change in the Ministry employees knowledge and experience of the Highway and Bridge Maintenance program. If you don’t have the experience how do you know what to Audit and to what depth, for example… Winter Maintenance Operations, do you just count the number of trucks in the yard as per approved plan and give them a passing grade or do you have the Maintenance Contractor demonstrate that the number of trucks is correct, that all are functional, including, plows, sanders, deicing capabilities etc and do they have sufficient employees per shift. If the Quality Audit is not followed up with the Maintenance Contractor, what was the point. I agree we all have a part in Winter driving, but as a driver and taxpayer we should be able to expect the Maintenance contractor and Highways employees to do their jobs as per the Maintenance Contract and the Ministry employees as per their job descriptions and not make excuses and deflect blame on the taxpayer. The system is broken and needs to be fixed, even though there is more traffic on out highways, we have been maintaining the same highways with the same methods for years and the maintenance seems to be getting worse instead of better. Something is wrong! This report is an insult to the taxpayers intelligence.

    • Hi there Ed,

      Thanks for your comment. Safety is our ministry’s highest priority, and the assessment of our maintenance contractor’s performance is no exception. A key component of our maintenance agreement includes assessing the quality of services provided by our contractors, who are contractually obligated to have a Quality Management System (QMS) in place based on the principles of ISO 9001 (the international standard of quality management). QMS focusses on the proactive identification of quality defects and continual improvements. As a requirement of ISO 9001 principles, contractors are required to have quality control and assurance processes in place, including internal audits to assess their own performance. The ministry conducts quality audits to assess the services performed by the contractor. As a part of the ministry’s quality plan, more than 100 staff across the province assess the quality of services provided by contractors. More than 15,000 monitoring records, more than 1,600 local audits, and 28 independent audits are completed to asset the contractors’ performance annually. You can find more information on how the ministry assesses maintenance contractor performance and their contractual obligations here:

  2. Please correct me if I’m wrong but it seems to me that applying sand salt mix is best done before the snow accumulates and is less likely to be blown away. Back east as in Quebec they get the road well covered before the snow falls so you do not end up with a compacted layer of ice.

    • Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for your comment. Our maintenance contractors focus first and foremost on clearing the travel lanes as per their specifications and, depending on the weather conditions and the conditions of all the routes under their care, they may return to further clear the road. Do you have an area in particular you are concerned about?

    • Hi Bob, thanks for your comment. The safety of the travelling public is our number one priority. Salt, sand, plowing, winter safety messaging, enforcement… all things we do to help keep travellers moving safely on BC highways. Like the article says – it takes two – us and you – the travelling public – who travel prepared, expecting winter driving conditions and drive accordingly.

  3. Very informative but needs one correction.

    I remember that year when the commercial vehicles have been blamed for 41 closures. I was stack for 5hrs in the box canyon while your previous contractor have been sliding backwards on the hill because their sanders have been broken as per their own conversation over their own vhf channel. No sand and more spun out trucks continued for few more hrs. Yes I have been listening to their channel, didn’t had the camera those days. I also remember them driving with no blades attached on their trucks???. Even though we have a new contractor I have been punished with extra set of chains and hernia. I guess this is the only exercise I can get in the 70hr week.

  4. The prime responsibility of safe operation rests with the operator of the vehicle of concern. If it means slowing down to drive conditions…. so be it. If it means taking extra time to go from A to B…. so be it. If it means stopping to put on a set of chains because of conditions…… so be it, do it. I guess really the message here is take your time, think out your options and don’t be stupid about your winter trip. I know truckers are “on the clock” but that doesn’t preclude them from safe operation of their rigs. If the conditions are lousy, get an extra 4-6 hours sleep, you’ll benefit by it in the end. Trouble is, today people want summer conditions in winter on roads which is an impossibility in our climate, so they can race from A to B in the shortest possible time. Why is it we can’t just slow down and enjoy the scenery…. winter is beautiful in BC.

    • Plan ahead, plan in depth. BC isn’t quite like the rest of Canada, insofar as weather predictions change more frequently and erratically (thanks Mountains and Oceans!). Still mostly accurate enough 24-48hrs out. Combine that with DriveBC (mainly Twitter now, web and phone seem to take backseat). Know what time you need to be at your destination, trip plan backwards with adjustment for weather and roads, then leave early anyways.

      Be prepared. If you’ve never hung iron, get some practice in during daylight in a parking lot. Know it fits. Know it’s in good shape. Learning in the cold and dark roadside, if you’re already late cuz you didn’t trip plan is a recipe for disaster.

      Companies and O/o’s– the cheapest jewelry “to be legal” won’t do you any favours when it fails cuz its cheap crap. Know what you’re buying and how you’re going to use it…. customers unplowed loading dock is not the same as up the Snowshed out of Box…

      And here’s the tip, chain off, look at them while you’re putting them away right (for future use, not having to untangle them….) if they’re twisted or broken, best get on that before you need them again. Carry repair bits, spare chains, or hit a shop.

      And if you don’t have enough winter mountain driving experience in ALL conditions, get some mentoring. Ask.

      And fellow truckers, stop being all about yourselves–mentor someone if you see them struggling. What if they’re ahead of you, spinning out and dumping busted links that get caught in yours? Now you’ll both be hooped. But bottom line, if you ain’t ready, don’t go…. the saying “if the wheels ain’t turning, the driver ain’t earning” ….. spun out and stuck (blocking others too), or on your side in a ditch (or worse) sure isn’t wheels turning! Nevermind wrecker costs and repairs. Know your route know your obstacles, know your truck, know your equipment, but above all, KNOW YOUR OWN LIMITATIONS.