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Tow-plows: Will they work?

Tow-plows: Will they work?

Given how much money they can save taxpayers on equipment and personnel by doubling the number of tr
Tow-plows: Will they work?
Chris Wade, the state Department of Transportation's equipment instructor, looks over a new tow plow attached to a dump truck with a front plow at the DOT subresidency in Latham today.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

Crazy.

That’s one way someone might initially describe the new “tow-plow” contraptions being purchased by New York state to help clear highways.

Given how much money they can save taxpayers on equipment and personnel by doubling the number of traffic lanes that can be plowed by a single vehicle, the devices are certainly worth trying.

But highway departments shouldn’t be jumping into purchasing the tow-plows without heavily investigating their compatibility with the community’s roads and reviewing some of the shortcomings experienced by communities that already use them.

Being able to plow two lanes of highway at the same time is more efficient and results in clearing those highways faster. The tow-plows also carry snow-melting material that can be spread on roads.

Being able to clear more highway faster, in turn, makes winter driving safer and reduces accidents.

Those are big reasons why the state Department of Transportation will be using eight new tow-plows on Capital District highways this winter, if it ever gets here.

Communities across the country that have purchased tow-plows, in general, seem happy with them, and their use is growing.

Still, these machines are limited in how effective they can be and where they can bring about savings.

In the Ontario, Canada, communities of Muskoka and Huntsville, about three to four hours north of Buffalo, their highway departments are scaling back on the use of the tow-plows and limiting their use to specific multi-lane, undivided, heavy-use highways because of complaints they don’t effectively remove snow.

One local newspaper there described the devices as “almost hated.”

They say in heavy snow conditions, as we experienced last year, the tow-plows have a tendency to lift up from the pavement, leaving a small layer of snow that soon becomes icy and rutted. As a result, highway chiefs in those communities have had to send regular plows back out over those roads to remove the layer of snow, reducing the savings that come from having them in the first place.

In Wisconsin, an experiment with tow-plows in two snowy cities resulted in a demonstrated savings in labor and fuel costs of 32-43 percent, and the experience was generally rated as positive.

But an analysis of the tow-plows indicated, as other communities have, that their limited maneuverability makes them difficult to use in tight spaces such as highway entrance and exit ramps and in the turn areas of medians.

Another big problem with them is that plow drivers are forced to drive a few mph slower than traditional plows. For motorists driving behind them, it means not only are two lanes of traffic blocked at the same time, they’re going to be going slower.

Drivers — not always the most patient of sorts — are going to have to adjust to sharing the road with these devices, not only the sight of them (they look like a jack-knifed tractor trailer from behind) but the slower speed. Operators recommend giving them at least five car lengths of room.

If you have a few minutes, click on this link and familiarize yourself with what they look like on the road: www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkmBP-ISzKk. (Skip to about the 1-minute mark to see what they look like from behind.)

In Montana, where tow-plow use is fairly new, they say the plow drivers occasionally rotate the plows back behind their vehicles and pull off to the side to allow drivers to pass. That helps eliminate one major complaint.

For state taxpayers, tow-plows might be a revelation. And for highway safety, they’ve proven to be reasonably effective.

But as with any new technology, they have some issues to which we’ll all have to adjust.

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