Snowplows increasingly will be manned by just one person this winter.
Instead of using two-person crews, a driver and a wing operator, counties are trying to do more with less.
It’s all in the name of saving money — and possibly improving safety.
Schenectady County has been using just one person on many of its plows for about 10 years and the practice is paying off, said Schenectady County DPW Commissioner Joe Ryan. The county has 16 one-person crews and only five two-person crews.
The change was made to cut costs, said Ryan, who added that equipment and drivability has improved and the control mechanism that works the wing plow is much easier to operate than it used to be.
“Overall, it works out for us,” said Ryan.
“We notice we have a substantial reduction in vehicle accidents, which is contrary to the information that people put out there,” he said, referring in part to complaints by union officials who would rather have two people operating each plow.
With the change, the number of claims against the county Highway Department dropped from about 80 to two to three a year, he said. When one person controls the truck and the wing, it’s easier to make decisions and the driver is more focused and less distracted.
The county followed the lead of the state Department of Transportation, which has been using one person on many of its plows since 1991 to reduce costs, said DOT spokesman Peter Van Keuren. Safety issues are constantly monitored, he said.
“We have been doing it successfully and safely since then,” said Van Keuren.
The DOT also looks at road characteristics, population density, traffic volume and physical features when deciding whether to use a two-person crew. Where traffic volume is very high, two people may be assigned, and in many locations, two-person plowing may occur during rush hours.
In other areas, like Long Island, certain roads are very congested and the DOT routinely runs two-person plows. This also occurs in very remote areas.
Officials in Saratoga County have discussed using one person on some of the routes that are plowed and watching how it plays out elsewhere, according to Joseph Ritchey, who heads the Department of Public Works.
“We’ve started getting the equipment changed over so all the trucks have the capabilities.
“It’s a balance between cost-saving measures and safety measures,” said Ritchey. “It’s mixed. That’s why we’re studying it. It could save some money, but you have to redo routes because you can’t back up.”
He also said there may be safety issues and union issues.
On the Northway or other long, straight highways, it’s not as big of a deal to operate a plow with one person instead of two, but with intersections and on lots of small roads, it’s more challenging.
That’s why Rotterdam Highway Superintendent Jim Longo isn’t fond of taking away the wing man on his plow crews. Oftentimes, the second person in the cab is needed when maneuvering a plow through residential streets.
“I understand it’s a cost-saving measure,” said Longo, who plowed streets for nearly three decades before being elected superintendent. “But without a wing man, there’s no way of actually telling how far out that wing is.”
Without a second person, he said, there would be a greater chance that the driver could clip a parked vehicle or other property near the road. He said a single accident between a parked vehicle and plow can rapidly diminish the savings a municipality realizes by removing the wing man.
“Trust me, with all the damage you can do, it’s really not cost-effective,” he said.
Schenectady County, like many of its counterparts, has reduced its work force considerably. In the late 1970s, there were 130 employees maintaining the county’s road and bridges, and today there are 48. That means that changes have to be made to maintain services.
Two-person crews are still used in higher-traffic areas like Altamont Avenue, Helderberg Avenue, the Rotterdam corridor and sections of Route 50 in Glenville.
On high-traffic roads and where there are not large shoulders, two-person crews are better. Ryan said it’s an extra set of eyes.
“Thirty or 40 years ago, you dug ditches with shovels. The technology changes and improves. You change with the times,” Ryan said of the decision to go to one-person plowing.