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Snowplow Ride-Along: Drivers Work Overtime To Get Roads Cleared

Whenever a snowstorm hits, the first question most people have is, "When is my street getting plowed?"
People in Central Illinois have been asking that a lot over the last two weekends.

Bobby Poplett, a veteran snowplow driver in Bloomington, is someone who may know the answer sooner than most. He gave GLT a glimpse of the job during an extended overtime weekend shift.  

Bobby drives snowplow
Credit Jeff Smudde / WGLT
Bobby Poplett has been a driver for Bloomington Public Works for 25 years.

Poplett has been a driver for Bloomington Public Works for 25 years. He's been on the snow removal crew for the last 20. When we climbed into his dump truck with a snowplow on the front and road salt in the back at 7 a.m. Saturday, Poplet had already been clearing roads for five hours.

The winter storm warning still had 11 hours to go.

“I can go home after any shift, but I try to stay (as long as) I can,” Poplett said. “If you are tired you go home and get some rest, and if they need you, they’ll call you back in after the next shift.”

Poplet said as a snowplow driver, he's mostly self-taught. Snowstorms, as it turns out, are like snowflakes; no two are the same. He said training comes with experience. 

“You can get training, but being in it is about the best training you can get,” Poplett said. “Every snow event can be different, so you just learn as you go.”

As he pulled into Heartland Hills subdivision on the southwest side of Bloomington, Poplett noted visibility was OK, despite occasional bursts of wind that pushed the mountains of snow back on the road. He was grateful for daybreak.

snow plow
Credit Jeff Smudde / WGLT
Bloomington snow plow driver Bobby Popplett said when visibility is low, the drivers have a saying: "Keep it between the ditches."

“When it’s at night, you don’t have lights out here, so you are trying to find the road, because there’s no curb, so when you are out here, we just say, ‘Keep it between the ditches.'"

Daylight typically means more drivers sharing the road, which creates another layer of concern for the plow drivers. Poplett said drivers getting stuck need help right away, and getting that help often slows snow removal.

“You want to try to help them, but you got to try to get (the snow) all cleaned up and just like that you are getting cars stuck,” Poplett said. “You try to do what you can to get around them to open up the road and get it salted so they are able to get out and get up the hill.”

Accidents do happen, and sometimes snowplow drivers are the cause, but Poplett warns that damaged mailboxes, which plow drivers are typically blamed for, are not always their fault.

“Sometimes, people think it’s us that get the mailboxes,” Poplett said. “Sometimes the snow is just so heavy, when it rolls off, it doesn’t matter how slow you and going if it’s a wet, heavy snow, it just bowls them over like a bowling ball.”

Another complaint this winter: What about all the fall leaves that were never picked up? The first snow of the season came weeks before winter officially started, and Poplett said crews have been playing catchup ever since.

“It makes it a little harder on everybody because you want to get through seasons before the next one comes, because it just complicates your job a little more,” Poplett said. “You want to get everything accomplished you can.”

He said drivers can help snow crews by staggering their cars—if they must park on the street—so plows can get in between each vehicle. Or better yet, park in the driveway, even if it means getting blocked in by the plows.

“You get cars parked out there and we can’t get in and when we come back, we plow your driveway shut again,” Poplett said. “You just wave to them and be like ‘Don’t be mad, I’m sorry.’”

snow plow
Credit Jeff Smudde / WGLT
Bloomington Public Works deployed its entire fleet of 24 snow-removal vehicles during last weekend's snowstorm.

Poplett said the work can be demanding, but he's single. It's less stressful for him than others with families as home. He said he takes as many extra shifts as he can to help co-workers.

“You try to take as much as you can, for the simple fact if I can, I’d like for them to stay home with them,” Poplett said. “I’ve worked Christmases and taken calls so people can be home with their families.”

Poplett said the public largely seems to appreciate their efforts, even in cases where it might take a day or more for city plows to get to their neighborhood.

“They are pretty much understanding," Poplett said. “It’s just like anybody else, you want your road done too, but they understand that we have to get the main and secondary (roads) open, and when we can and the bosses tell us, that’s when we go in and take care of the rest of it.”

Poplett's advice during bad weather? Stay home unless you must be out.

“If you don’t have to and you can prepare for it, get everything you can before you have to,” Poplett said. “It makes our job easier and it’s just safer for everybody. If I didn’t have to be out in this, I think I’d be staying home and enjoying some time at home.”

Last weekend's storm ended up being less severe than first feared. Bloomington-Normal received about 3 inches of snow, while winds weren't as strong. The roads were mostly cleared by that afternoon.

Some parts of western Illinois received close to 6 inches of snow last weekend. That pales in comparison to the foot or more some parts of the region received.

GLT's full story

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.