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Sugar Beets Are One Way To Fight Snow And Ice Hazards

Chase Cavanaugh

With more winter storms expected across Illinois, local and state authorities are working to clear the roads and respond to traffic accidents. 

Heavy snowfall can lead to labor like shoveling on driveways and sidewalks. For roads, local government steps in.  The City of Rockford has a fleet of more than 20 trucks for snow and ice removal. Staff are unionized, so they bid on routes. Public Works Director Kyle Saunders explained.

"They get the opportunity to pick which route they like. We have both arterial and residential routes. So they kind of get that opportunity. It’s something they’re going to live with all season," he said. 

The trucks start by plowing and salting the busiest roads, then move on to more residential roads, sometimes with the help of contractors.  Saunders said the city’s odd-even parking ordinance helps with this process.

"For instance, if it’s an odd day, starting at 8 a.m., if we declare that snow emergency, we need cars to be parked on the odd side of the street. That way, it gives us that opportunity to get one clear pass through so our drivers can get in without having to slalom between parked cars."

Trucks also spread salt on the roads to prevent ice. It’s made from calcium carbonate but Saunders said it’s made more effective by mixing in juice from sugar beets.

"Sugar actually lowers the freezing point lower than salt, so it’s something that that beet juice element certainly helps us coat that rock salt," he said. 

If there’s leftover salt from a previous year, Rockford will use the excess in this year’s clearing efforts. But outside of city roads, the responsibility for cleaning up falls on the Illinois Department of Transportation. Engineer of Operations Amy Eller explained.

"We have the interstate system, we have the state highways, like an Illinois route," she said. "Some of those do run through various cities, which are what we maintain. Others, we have agreements with some local municipalities to help us with maintenance of those." 

IDOT gets weather forecasts from several sources, such as the National Weather Service. Based on current conditions, it then deploys its plows as soon as it can. 

"There are certain conditions where we can’t do that, but most generally, if we can get out, we will be pre-treating, pre-wetting. We put down a salt brine to keep any precipitation from freezing to the pavement." 

Credit IDOT official Twitter account.
One of the many plows that IDOT has at its disposal.

On larger roads, the plows often work in groups. 

"You’ll have one truck out ahead of the next one, but they’re all travelling in tandem to clear all the lanes at the same time," she said. 

Though a state agency, IDOT localizes its plans by working through nine distinct districts.

"Even though we’re responsible for the whole state, we have our units broken down so that it’s very manageable. They all know their areas very well. They’ve all become very familiar with them," Eller said. 

But plowing is only part of the job. The Illinois State Police work with IDOT on a regular basis, starting with social media campaigns regarding safety. Lieutenant Colonel David Byrd is an assistant deputy director. He says one of the most important messages ISP tries to get out is for drivers to take their time.

"We’d rather you guys try to be there early than try to crunch it and get there on time because that’s when you might increase your speeds in areas where you probably shouldn’t be doing it," he said. "The road surfaces might be icy, slippery, it might be snow covered."

This also includes taking one’s time around slow cars and plows.

"He’s probably going slow because of the road conditions. So at that point, we might need to take heed and follow his lead," Byrd said. 

When accidents do occur, ISP first responds to those that involve direct injuries. Then, they address those that block lanes.

"We want to prevent that secondary crash, or a third crash," Byrd said. "That’s where you can get a pileup. And believe me, that’s the last thing we want, is a pileup on the Interstate."

Fender benders that don’t block traffic are the lowest priority, but whatever the accident, Byrd said drivers need to heed Scott’s Law which is "...where you slow your speed and move to the left of the unit or the emergency vehicles that are stopped."

Byrd said the number one message during snow and ice: Stay off the roads if possible. 

"If we can reduce the number of motorists on the interstate, it’s going to assist us, going to assist law enforcement in general, do their job on a day with severe weather like we had last year with the polar vortex."