There’s no getting around it — icy, snowy, wet, ugly weather is on its way. As you gear up to gripe and complain about the inevitable onslaught of lousy driving conditions, spare a thought for the snowplow operator whose job it is to slog through city streets all season long.
Norberto Santos, manager of operations and maintenance, has been with the City of Toronto for more than 20 years. He’s operated every manner of plow – loader, grader, sidewalk machine – through all types of weather, including Toronto’s famous January 1999 blizzard.
“We didn’t need the army,” he comments about then-mayor Mel Lastman’s decision to call in the military to help with snow removal.
Here’s what he wants other drivers, to know about how snowplow operators keep the city plowed and clear.
Every snowstorm is different
Although the city has a systematic approach to managing snowfall, according to Santos, each operation is slightly different. “We may get a storm with a quick five centimetres when only sidewalk machines and salters go out,” he explains. “Then, three hours later, a snow squall arrives. Now you’ve got 10 cm, everything you did earlier is obsolete, and you have to start from scratch. Every storm is different.”
That said, Santos says over the past two decades changes in weather have made the job less arduous. “Due to the fact that we don’t seem to get as much snow, the actual [snow-clearing] operation is easier,” he said.
Snowplow operators are driving through the same conditions as you
“People should know operators are trying to get to work just like the rest of the public,” Santos said. “Most of them don’t live close to the plow; they get called in and have to drive to the plow. So, they are driving in the same conditions as people are complaining about.”
When asked about the worst conditions for a plow operator, Santos doesn’t hesitate — the first few hours of accumulation.
“We are operating in the same conditions as every vehicle on the road. The roads are slippery, so we’re also watching our speed,” he said. “Because our vehicles are heavier, we have to slow down faster; we don’t have the same stopping distance as everyone else. We have to be extremely careful. We’re not special.”
Santos points to Dufferin Road as one of the most challenging in the city — specifically from Rogers Road north to Eglinton Ave.
“We’ll get salt trucks stuck because the traffic’s not moving,” he said.
“We’re trying to lay salt and we can’t. Busses are everywhere blocking the road because they get stuck. Try to fit a piece of equipment through all that. No one wants to move for you.”
Tailgating a snowplow is a bad idea
Each piece of equipment has its challenges. According to Santos, the graders and loaders are the trickiest to operate by virtue of their size.
“Visibility around the vehicle is minimal,” he said. “You have very big plows at the front, and you can’t see behind you.
Tailgating can be a problem. Santos says drivers frequently travel too close behind a plow.. Occasionally, pedestrians will even try to walk around the equipment.
“People need to understand, we’re not driving a Toyota Prius,” said Santos. “We’re operating pieces of equipment that take patience and skill to drive. We shouldn’t be blocked or interfered with. We don’t need the extra stress as operators.”
and so is taking a swing at a snowplow
Finally, a word about windrows. You know, those piles of snow left at the bottom of a driveway after a plow has cleared the road? Yes, they’re called windrows.
Windrows are not popular among homeowners with driveways. Snowplow operators know this. They know this because, after plowing a residential street creating numerous windrows, it’s not unusual for peeved residents to sprint after the equipment or the driver. It’s why drivers are instructed not to interact with the public.
“Sometimes they grab onto the cab of the truck while yelling at the drivers, or grab a shovel and take a swing at the tires,” Santos said.
“It’s not as if we have much choice. Where else are you going to put the snow?” Santos said. “It has to go somewhere.”
Finally, although we haven’t yet this winter experienced a major snowfall, know that city staff are, at this very moment, checking road conditions and monitoring forecasts and pavement temperatures. They will do this 24-7 for the rest of snow season, which, sadly, lasts until next April.
Winter upkeep by the numbers
13 – number of hours it typically takes to clear sidewalks after a snowfall
14-16 – the number of hours after the snow stops falling it can take plows to clear neighbourhood roads.
$135 – fine for not clearing snow from public property.
200 – Number of city salt trucks
300 – Number of city sidewalk plows
600 – Number of city snowplows
1,500 – Number city staffer at the ready to tackle winter, 24/7
262,000 – number of driveway openings cleared by plows with special blades within about two hours of neighbourhood street plowing being completed.
$90 million – what the city spends each year to deliver winter operations