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Michigan Snowplows Get Green Warning Lights

The Michigan Department of Transportation is gearing up for winter. Preparations include getting snow plows ready to hit the roads and highways of the state. Keeping roadways as clear as possible is crucial, but so is the safety of plow drivers and motorists. This year, the preparations include an important new safety feature.

Have you ever been driving in the winter and seen flashing lights up ahead and wondered if you were approaching a police car or a tow truck or a snow plow? Most drivers know that cop cars have red and blue lights, and the lights on a tow truck are amber. This winter, you can expect to see a new flashing light color: green.

Because of a new state law passed in 2016, the state and many county road commissions are installing green flashers on snow plows.

At the Michigan Department of Transportation Grand Ledge Garage on North Canal Road, Engineer of Operations Field Services Mark Geib explains that "green and yellow are the two colors in the light spectrum that are the most visible to the human eye."

Making snow plows easier to see will hopefully avoid accidents. Maintenance Supervisor Ben Hodges can’t come up with a single horror story of a motorist passing one of these rigs because it happens all the time. His advice: don’t crowd the plow. "These large winter maintenance vehicles are sometimes equipped with tow plows and wing plows along with front plows," Hodges states. "Some of them are very large and sometimes can be unpredictable if a motorist is too close."

You know snow plows are big, right? But how big are they? Fully loaded with salt, a standard tandem axle snow plow truck weighs between 50,000 and 60,000 pounds. A fully loaded tow plow weighs up to 90,000 pounds.

And it isn’t just that snow plows are big; it’s also how many of them are out there. Engineer Mark Geib says the state has about 300 of them, and counties and cities have more than 1,000 statewide.

Expect to see those biggest plows, the tow plows, on Michigan roadways with greater frequency this winter. Ben Hodges says they are capable of clearing more road, but that means they need more room. "One operator can plow two lanes, one shoulder and another partial shoulder within one pass," he concludes.

The state is betting that flashing green lights and bigger plows on Michigan roads this winter will mean faster clearing and greater safety, as long as motorists give them the space and the time they need to do the job.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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