DOT discouraging travel during blizzard

MASON CITY — Travel is being discouraged during the blizzard.

Pete Hjelmstad with the Iowa Department of Transportation office in Mason City says if you do have to travel, especially in areas where tow bans have been declared, you need to be prepared to stay in your car a while if you end up in the ditch. “If you do decide to travel and something would happen where you end up in the ditch, it’s going to be a while before people come to get you, because the tow truck drivers will not be able to come out. First responders will be able to come out obviously, but they are going to be busy as well, and you are putting them in danger if you sit in the ditch and force them to come out and try to rescue you. Bottom line is if you can, stay home, if you can’t, slow down. Make sure you have a full tank of gas. Make sure you have a fully charged cell phone with a charger, and make sure you’ve got that winter survival kit in your vehicle.”

Hjelmstad says tow bans are put in place for the safety of tow truck drivers. “We don’t want tow truck drivers out there trying to pull people out in these conditions for everybody’s safety, for the tow truck driver’s safety, for the traveling public’s safety, even for the people in the ditches safety.”

Hjelmstad says the DOT switched to a different lighting pattern on their snow plows in the winter to help people better see those plows. “We have the amber lights, but we switched to a blue-and-white as well as the amber light, flashing light pattern. It really seems to cut through the snow better. It made a big difference. Our plow hits dropped significantly, but the sad thing is, since 2020, and I know you’ve heard about this before, people have become way more aggressive driving and have been driving a lot faster. All of a sudden, our plow hits have gone straight back up again.”

The forecast calls for whiteout conditions in parts of Iowa, and Hjelmstad says if it gets that bad, plow drivers may be pulled off the road. “If the visibility gets to a point where it’s not safe for our plow drivers, we will pull them. That’s a shop supervisor, our district maintenance manager, our district operations manager, they all collaborate in making that decision as far as the safety of our drivers.”

Hjelmstad says closing an interstate is usually the last resort taken by the DOT in a winter storm. “We always say we don’t usually close the interstate, the interstate usually closes itself. What I mean by that is you start having crashes and lanes start getting blocked, and it’s too dangerous to get tow trucks out there. If that starts happening, and it’s not a safe situation to get the roads clean whether it be of vehicles or it’s drifting in immediately as a plow goes through, that’s when we make the decision to close the interstate.”

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