CALEDONIA — After a pair of costly plow crashes this past winter, the Village of Caledonia is trying to establish an official policy related to clearing ice and snow from its approximately 160 miles of roads.
A policy proposal went before the Village Board on April 16, but a tie vote prevented it from passing as trustees disagreed with one another, and three of them disagreed with the police chief, about how many hours plow drivers should be allowed to work in a row.
In addition to establishing directives for public employees, the policy also is intended to codify the village’s expectations of residents for what snow they have to clear, what can be left alone and what public employees will be responsible for.
The Village Board agreed that a policy needs to be on the books. The disagreement lies in the minutia of its mandates.
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No policy at the moment
Right now, the village doesn’t have an official snow and ice control policy, relying on unofficial strategies and supervisors’ decisions to manage wintertime cleanup.
As proposed, the new policy would set a maximum of 16 hours on the road for the village’s plow truck drivers, with a mandatory 8 hours off after a 16-hour shift.
That maximum could be overridden by order of the village administrator, police chief or the head of the Engineering Department on a case-by-case basis. That override would only need to be used in situations where there has been an unusual amount of snow or several consecutive days with considerable snowfall, according to Tom Lazcano, the head of Caledonia’s Engineering Department.
Other Wisconsin municipalities similar in size to Caledonia usually have a 16-hour limit for plow drivers, according to Lazcano.
Police Chief Daniel Reilly said he wants the 16 hours of driving to “be an absolute limit,” no matter the situation, considering the danger of having someone on the road for that long of a time without a substantial break.
“There are so many studies out there that say, if you’ve been awake for 17 hours, your reaction time is the same as (having a blood-alcohol concentration of) 0.05. If you’re awake for 21 hours, it’s the same thing as being at 0.08,” Reilly said. “When we say (a driver) is OK to go, and they screw up, we’ve now just put the village under a huge liability. There needs to be something in place where, after 16 hours, you’re off the road for 8 hours and somebody else has got to drive.”
During a Public Works Committee meeting the week before the April 16 Board meeting, Assistant Village Administrator Toni Muise said that plow drivers were involved in two crashes this winter. Neither crash caused any injuries since drivers only struck parked cars, but they still are expected to cost the village more than $12,000, according to Muise.
Those crashes had a hand in the village furthering its snow and ice control policy.
Highway Operations Supervisor Bill Jacoby referred to the crashes as “flukes,” since neither crash appeared to have been related to driver exhaustion or sleep deprivation — both occurred within the first 6 hours of the respective drivers’ shifts.
Jacoby and Village Administrator Tom Christensen disagreed about how often drivers are plowing for more than 16 hours straight.
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Christensen said: “We have been routinely getting our plow drivers out on the road for 17 hours with 3 hours of sleep.”
According to Jacoby, drivers had not worked for more than 14 hours in a row in 2019.
Village Trustee Dave Prott, who works as a superintendent with the Racine County Highway Department, said that it is relatively common for county-employed plow drivers to work 17-hour shifts.
“To me, driving 16 hours in that white fluffy stuff would drive you nuts,” Village President Jim Dobbs said. “We need to be a little safer.”
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The dangers of not plowing
Prott said that forcing plow-truck drivers to get off the road after 16 hours could lead to even more dangerous situations. If there comes a point when there aren’t enough plow drivers working, it could become even more dangerous — if not impossible — for police and fire vehicles to travel in the snow, he said.
Reilly countered by saying that proper planning and organization of shifts, such as implementing staggered start times, would prevent there ever being a need for a driver to work for over 16 hours. He acknowledged that hiring more employees may be necessary. The village might also have to ask Utility District employees to drive plows in an emergency situation if too many Highway Department drivers have reached the proposed 16-hour limit.
Prott, along with trustees Kevin Wanggaard and Lee Wishau, still wanted to keep the ability to override the 16-hour limit, in case of emergencies.
The Board voted 3-3 on April 16 — Trustee Dale Stillman was excused and not present at the meeting — and the policy was sent back to the committee level to be reviewed.
Whatever happens, the board still agreed that a policy needs to be put into code before next winter.
“This is dangerous. We need something,” Dobbs said.
The proposed policy would also require property owners to keep sidewalks on their property, or abutting their property, clear and free of ice and snow. Crosswalk entrances and handicap ramps would also be the responsibility of abutting property owners.
“This is dangerous. We need something.” Jim Dobbs, Caledonia village president, speaking about the possibility of plow driver shift limits