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Q&A with IDOT's Matthew Vitner takes WCBU inside a Peoria 'super tandem' snow plow

2Peoria County snowplow Matthew Vitner interview.jpg
Hannah Alani
IDOT's Matthew Vitner stands in front of a Peoria County Highway Department dome containing 3,500 tons of salt -- roughly 28 adult blue whales' worth of salt.

This winter, the Illinois Department of Transportation will have almost 1,800 trucks ready to plow nearly 16,000 miles of roads statewide.

IDOT’s District 4 – which covers 12 counties, including Peoria County – employs 300 drivers to plow 88 different routes. Multiple domes are stuffed with 3,500 tons of salt — that's roughly the weight of 28 adult blue whales.

Matthew Vitner is the Bureau Chief of Operations for District 4.

From the inside of a Peoria County snow plow on Wednesday, he spoke with WCBU’s Hannah Alani about what it’s like to operate a plow – and how Peoria area drivers can help truck operators this upcoming winter.

The following is a transcript of an interview that aired during All Things Peoria on Wednesday, Nov. 17. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Matthew Vitner: So we're inside of one of our plow patrol trucks. We call it a “super tandem,” it has an extra long bed, gives it the capacity to stay out on the road longer, than in trucks that we've previously procured. So we can be on the road instead of reloading, you know, more frequently. These spreaders have dual spinners on them. We have a 12-foot plow in front. And we have a patrol wing on the side so we can clear more pavement at one time in one pass.

They're equipped with an iPad here, where the plow operator can convey real time information regarding road conditions. You have an electronic control joystick here that makes it very ergonomic for the plow operator, one-handed to control the plow left to right up and down, control the patrol wing up and down, and control the spreader controls to optimize the salt placement as they go down the road.

3Peoria County snowplow Matthew Vitner interview.jpg
Hannah Alani
The Illinois Department of Transportation District 4 covers Peoria County.

Hannah Alani: I'm looking around. I'm seeing a lot of buttons. What’s the most important, or the most used, button piece of equipment that we're looking at here?

Matthew Vitner: It's all important, it all works in conjunction with the operator. The operator is there, they are trained, and the more experienced you get, the truck becomes one with the operator, essentially. So these controls are an extension of the operator behind the truck. They're not just truck drivers, they’re plow operators. There's so many different inputs that they have with manipulating the plow, the wing, the salt, raising the bed to make sure the salt distribution, you know, the salt is getting back to the spreader pan. And all the while paying attention to traffic. And especially on interstates and rural routes, it becomes more challenging.

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Hannah Alani: Across the 12 counties that your district oversees, you have 300 employees, and most are working 12-hour shifts?

Matthew Vitner: We have rotating shifts, we have an A shift and a B shift from 7 to 7 each day. And then we change that up every week. So if there's a snowstorm that goes 24 hours, for example, the A crew would work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., then we would switch over and have a shift change from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. … So they're not being worn down. They work a limited number of hours. 12 hours is a long time. It takes, you know, these operators not only have to have the skill to operate the truck to be safe and watch out for the motoring public. But they have to have the stamina. It takes skill and stamina to operate for 12 hours at a time, and sometimes longer, depending on the magnitude of the storm.

5Peoria County snowplow Matthew Vitner interview TRUCK INTERIOR.jpg
Hannah Alani
Inside a $155,000 "super tandem" snow plow truck, an iPad allows drivers to electronically control how much ice melt is being distributed out the back end of the vehicle.

…When it comes time to plow snow, they get excited about it. And they enjoy doing it. And that's why they're here. So at some point, it's like operating a Tonka toy to them, you know, they, they really enjoy having this piece of equipment available to them. And the state has provided us with the luxury and the budget to be able to upgrade our fleet, which is much appreciated over time here, to have the biggest and the best equipment to clear the roads as efficiently and as fast as we can.

Hannah Alani: How many of these specific trucks do we have deployed across those 12 counties? And how much does a truck like this cost?

Matthew Vitner: We have 163 vehicles on 88 patrol routes through 12 counties. This is a super tandem, it has a 15-foot bed at tandem axles. It has a 12-foot plow. It has a belly blade on it for scraping up hardpack snow. It has a patrol wing on the side so we can clear more than 12 feet of pavement, and push back on the shoulders. This particular truck costs about $155,000. We have smaller trucks, they cost about $120-130,000.

Hannah Alani: We may have listeners who are interested in job openings. Can you talk a little bit about the specific jobs that you have open?  

Matthew Vitner: We have standing postings for what are called “hourly employees,” which we're always looking for. We're looking for people who are interested, that possess a Class A CDL license to operate a vehicle of the size and weight, that may have a full time job, or they may be in a trade that has them in a position to where they're available in the winter. And they can apply to be an hourly, in an hourly position, to where they're on call as needed. So when it snows, we would give them a call.

4Peoria County snowplow Matthew Vitner interview TRUCK.jpg
Hannah Alani
The Illinois Department of Transportation District 4 covers Peoria County.

We also have what are called “full-time temporary employees.” So from November 16, to the end of April, we hire quote unquote, “snowbirds.” And many, many people actually do this year over year. Especially some of our rural counties, where farmers farm during the summertime and then they like to plow snow in the wintertime. So when they bring in their crops, they take on a position, just working winter where they work 40 hours a week, through the winter period till April just plowing snow. We're always looking for people to fill in the gaps there.

…In District 4, we needed 138 full-time temporary employees, which are the snowbirds that I'm referring to, that would work full time, essentially, from November to April.

...I think our postings just came down November 16, which was yesterday. The 138 positions we were looking to fill, we have applicants for. And now, if we need to go to a fifth posting to fill in any gaps, “onesies twosies,” so to speak … Like in Peoria County, we may fall short by one or two, we'll put up another posting again. People should look for that on the IDOT website, under employment, and they will see those postings on there for hourlies and full-time temporary employees.

Hannah Alani: I think you've done a really good job explaining, you know, what's going on inside the truck bed. For the rest of us, we just see these trucks go by and we're like, “Oh, yeah, the plows!” You don't really think so much about the people inside the plows. What are the best things people, the rest of us, can do to help you do your job quickly and do it well?

Matthew Vitner: So, what we like to say is, “Don't crowd the plow.” We want you to arrive safe to your destination, we ask that you limit travel during snowstorms. That way, the less traffic that's on the road, the greater ability for us to plow snow and clear the road, salt the roads more efficiently. The more we have to pay attention to traffic, obviously, the harder it is. The best thing you can do is stay back, give yourself more distance, understand that the snowplow operator has to look forward and he has to manage his plow. And he has to manage his wing and he has to manage his product distribution behind him. When you get too close to them, you’re not only gonna have salt bouncing off the ground, potentially, and you're going to have that bouncing into the front of your car. You don't want that.

1Peoria County snowplow Matthew Vitner interview.jpg
Hannah Alani
Inside a $155,000 "super tandem" snow plow truck, a joy stick allows truck operators to control a variety of truck functions while plowing the roads.

... It creates an … uncomfortably close situation where now an operator is worried about somebody who wants to pass them and there's blowing snow. And if you're passing somebody in an unplowed lane … if you have a single truck plowing the driving lane, and the passing lane is not cleared yet … what will happen is a car will try to pass a snow plow truck because it's moving slower than the speed limit, and that car will get caught in the unplowed lane, and that will cause you to have to correct, and when people are trying to go too fast they overcorrect, and that's when they wind up in the ditch.

So give yourself some time and distance and patience. That's the best thing you can do. Limit travel and don't be distracted while driving. I mean, even if you have a hands-free device, when you're talking on the phone, you're still distracted while driving. And that's the best thing you can do. If you don't have to travel, don't do it until the storm is over.

Typical snowstorms, you know, will last less than 24 hours. You know, we get three inches of snow or so. You know, go to the go to the grocery store the next day. Just let us do our jobs. We try to do the best we can. We know we have to work around traffic, and people have the need to go places. Not saying that you shouldn't travel. But think about critically what you really need to accomplish during a snowstorm.

As part of IDOT's “Winter Weather – Get it Together” campaign, travelers are encouraged to follow these simple guidelines:

  • Bookmark GettingAroundIllinois.com to check travel conditions 24/7. This year’s winter road conditions map will feature more local, more precise reporting information. (GettingAroundPeoria shows local conditions.)
  • Wear a seat belt. It’s the law in Illinois. And it’s your best defense in a crash.
  • Drop it and drive. Put down the mobile devices – it, too, is the law.
  • Do not travel during bad weather unless absolutely necessary. If you do have to drive, check the forecast and make sure someone is aware of your route. Familiarize yourself with public transportation options.
  • Slow down. Slower speeds, slower acceleration, slower steering and slower braking are required throughout the winter.
  • Don’t crowd the plow. A snowplow operator’s field of vision is restricted. You may see
  • them, but they may not see you. Any plow that’s hit is one less resource available to clear the roads.
  • Watch out for black ice. A road may appear clear but can be treacherous.
  • Be especially careful when approaching intersections, ramps, bridges and shaded areas. All are prone to icing.
  • Prepare an emergency kit that contains jumper cables, flares or reflectors, windshield washer fluid, a small ice scraper, traction material, blankets, non-perishable
  • food and a first-aid kit.
  • Carry a cell phone and a car charger in case of emergency.
  • Give them distance. Obey the Move Over Law by slowing down and changing lanes when approaching ANY stopped vehicle with flashing lights.

View job openings with IDOT here.

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