Be ready for anything: Winter Driving in the Bakken

By Sid Pranke

Bakken-area drivers already got an early taste of possible things to come this winter – in mid-November, icy roads led to travel advisories, numerous accidents and tragically, several deadly crashes.

North Dakota got a break last winter, with little snow and unseasonably warm temperatures.

Though the elements often defy prediction, near normal levels of snowfall are expected this winter for North Dakota, according to the National Weather Service’s climate outlook for the December to February winter season. And the online version of Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts North Dakota’s snowiest periods will be mid-December, early February and early March. We’ll see how that goes.

During that first big winter storm of the season, Sgt. Darcy Aberle of the N.D. Highway Patrol’s Northwest region in Williston, said area troopers out in the field noticed some avoidable problems.

There was no travel advised, but Aberle said troopers were still seeing oilfield companies sending their workers out to work.

“Companies were acting as if it was a regular work day,” Aberle said. “When we see no travel advised, we’re basically saying ‘stay off the roads’ unless it’s an emergency to get to a hospital or something like that.”

Aberle said he hopes the word gets out about travel advisory warnings. “We did stop and talk to a lot of the truck drivers that were stuck” and told them they shouldn’t have been on the roads at all with the poor road conditions, he said.

Trucks with heavier loads have better traction, but Aberle said that’s a double-edged sword.

“You have more pressure down on the roadway to get moving and go faster, but with that weight it’s tougher to stop,” Aberle said.

A lot of the trucks troopers see aren’t carrying tire chains to use when they’re needed, according to Aberle.

“In North Dakota and the Badlands especially, it can be a nice day but there might be a hill they have to go down and without chains they might not get out of that location,” Aberle said.

If drivers hold a commercial driver’s license (CDL), it’s more likely they’ve received training in winter truck driving that included instruction about the use of tire chains for winter driving. But what drivers learn in hands-on training can depend partly on what time of year it is when they take a CDL course, said TrainND’s CEO Deanette Piesik. TrainND offers year-round CDL training.

“People in the CDL class now are getting instruction on winter driving,” Piesik said. “In the summer, they (students) get instruction on heat and how that affects the trucks as well.”

Piesik said they use full-size semi-trucks with trailers for their CDL classes.

“Because that’s what they (students) have to test in, in order to get their CDL,” she said.

TrainND’s CDL-preparation course is three weeks long and covers speed, space management, chaining up and chain removal, and ice buildup issues on trucks, Piesik said.

“If the ice builds up, it can knock off air lines and electrical lines on the truck and trailer hookups,” she said.

A variety of students enroll in TrainND’s CDL classes, Piesik said. “We work with some companies who send their new hires – people who don’t have their CDLs, and then we have people who come in off the street who’ve got the money to get the class,” she said.

And for all drivers, having tire chains in your vehicle isn’t enough; you have to know how to use them.  “That’s the big thing. If you do have tire chains, practice putting them on and taking them off,” Sgt. Aberle said. “What we see lots of times with new people that are up in North Dakota, is they go out and buy tire chains, but they’ve never taken them out of the bag.”

Aberle said the Highway Patrol used to carry tire chains in their vehicles, but not anymore. “We have enough 4-wheel drives so we just run with those,” he said.

If you’re moderately adept with using tire chains, it will take about 10 minutes per tire to put on chains properly, and if your vehicle has 4-wheel drive and you still want to use tire chains, you can get away with just using two of them, Aberle said.

North Dakota’s highway conditions and maintenance

Aberle praised the way the North Dakota Department of Transportation takes care of highways during winter. He cited his own recent road trip as an example. He traveled to Colorado the day after the Nov. 10 storm.

“I drove on solid ice all the way through Montana and never saw a plow,” Aberle said. “Solid white ice the whole way through Montana, and North Dakota’s road were clean.”

Aberle said he just took his time and adjusted his driving to the conditions. “That might be 20 miles per hour on a 65- or 75-mile-per-hour road, but if that’s all it allows, that’s the speed you have to go,” he said.

Aberle recommends drivers more than double the normal traveling distance behind other vehicles. “You don’t know exactly how icy it is at times. Double might suffice for making a quick stop and not hurting somebody, but you might as well play it safe and stay back even further,” he said. “That also gives you a little more reaction time.”

Due to the predicted icy conditions, highway maintenance crews were pretreating highways before the Nov. 10 winter storm, said Larry Gangl, Dickinson district engineer of NDDOT.

“Pretreating works well but it doesn’t work in all cases. Mother Nature in certain storms will win – it’s going to stick no matter what you do, but you try to minimize that,” Gangl said. “If it sticks, it may not stick as hard and come off easier the next day.” Gangl said NDDOT tries to stay as aggressive as possible to prevent poor road conditions due to snow and ice. “But there are times when they’re going to be that way, no matter what you do,” he said.

NDDOT follows a protocol of treating roads in the winter, Gangl said. If snow is predicted, crews report to work earlier than usual. If the normal start time is 6 a.m., crews come in early at 4 or 5 a.m. Maintenance trucks, such as those used for anti-icing, have set routes.

“Generally, we start with our highest-priority roads, which are the roads with the most traffic,” Gangl said. “The interstate system is the highest priority, then we work on our U.S. highways, which are highways 12 and 85, then we go down to our state highways like Highway 22.”

For roads with snow and ice on them, NDDOT generally plows first, Gangl said, “because the salt/sand mixture we’re using won’t work unless you get the snow off first.”

NDDOT puts down either a sand/salt mixture or straight salt, depending on conditions. “How much you put down is based on what’s on the roadways, as far as ice cover, ice thickness, that type of thing,” Gangl said.

Road safety issues

High traffic on Bakken roads and highways has been well-documented, but Highway Patrol officers trying to enforce the laws face similar dangers that all drivers do. When asked if icy  road conditions and a lack of approaches or wide shoulders on Bakken highways prevent him from doing his job the way he’d like to do it, Aberle (who patrols in the Williston area) said it does.

“That’s one of the issues we have with a few of our roads – we have no shoulders on them. If the vehicle doesn’t stop at an approach or if we aren’t near an approach … if I don’t have an approach where I think I can make a safe stop, I’m probably not even going to stop the vehicle,” Aberle said.

Highway 85 closer to Williston has added passing lanes and has wide shoulders, but from Belfield to Watford City there are no passing lanes and few approaches. Plans are in the works for improvements on that stretch of Highway 85, but officials say the plans could take several more years to implement.

Aberle said the Highway Patrol has started training with approaches on the passenger side of vehicles, “so we’re actually in the ditch,” he said.

In addition, NDDOT’s Gangl said his department works with the highway patrol to coordinate on areas to develop for pulling trucks over.

If drivers feel unsafe on area highways (such as if they see a big truck barreling down behind them in the distance), consider pulling off the side of the road to let the truck pass.

“If they (drivers) feel it’s their safest bet to pull over and allow the traffic to go by, we’re all for that,” Aberle said. “I’m not going to tell people they have to pull over, because it’s not state law to do it.”