History has shown us how winter weather and roads don’t mix.
On Valentine’s Day 2007, an ice storm stranded thousands for 24 hours on a 50 mile stretch of I-78. Then-governor Ed Rendell called for an independent review which cited slow response by state officials and a total breakdown in communication.
In 2016, a pileup on I-78 due to a whiteout left several people dead.
Improvements have been made. The state introduced 511PA to give real-time traffic information, and state agencies can impose travel restrictions and bans.
“The restrictions we look at are purely about safety,“ PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt said. “We’ve been using them since 2008.“
PennDOT can reduce speed limits and ban commercial travel, but why ban trucks and not all drivers?
“When we have a commercial vehicle accident, they are much more significant, much more difficult to clear,“ said Marcus Brown, director of the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security.
Over the past five years, commercial bans have been used more often. The longest this winter lasted 31 hours.
no ban, closures exceeding 15 hours, 5 interstates closed, 2 limited access roads
10 hours (I-90/86 only)
31 hours (majority of state removed in 24 hours)
15 hours (lifted I-78 for several hours with no snow)
14.5 hours (22 hours of bans, no one road over 14.5)
15 hours (21 hours of bans, no one road over 15)
20 hours (I-90 only, empty trucks only)
15 hours (majority lifted after 12 hours)
“The trucking community, in general, is very frustrated,“ said Kevin Stewart, the president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, the second largest trade association representing the interest of trucking companies.
There is a debate within the trucking community about whether the commercial vehicle bans are always necessary.
“New York and New Jersey also have some bans. They haven’t been near as aggressive as we have been in Pennsylvania,“ Stewart said.
Travel bans mean a loss for drivers and for trucking companies working on small profit margins. Time-sensitive deliveries like milk and oil are put on hold, and sometimes those drivers are forced to secondary roadways.
“Eighty percent of all the crashes here in Pennsylvania are occurring on the secondary roadways, not on the interstate system. So, our argument has always been we are really banning the wrong vehicles and you are sending us off on secondary roadways, which statistically are not as safe as the interstate system,“ said Stewart.
There is also debate on whether safety is the only reason bans are put in place. Some believe commercial travel bans have increased over the past few years because PennDOT has not had a full staff of plow drivers.
“PennDOT has not changed any of its winter operations,” Waters-Trasatt said. “We have always focused on interstates and expressways first, and we have always had the flexibility to extend shifts, but we’re still meeting the mission. We’ve still had about 4,800 operators every winter.“
Brown says commercial travel bans have produced positive results.
“We have seen a reduction in the accidents and the backlogs on the highways as a result of the restrictions being put in place,“ he said. “We do recognize the concern the trucking industry has. We don’t take that lightly. We know commerce in this state is extremely important, so there are actually steps that we take to try to alleviate these issues or ease these issues as much as possible.“
“We really are trying to keep traffic moving but moving safely,“ said Water-Trasatt.
Conversations on this issue are ongoing. The Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association suggests speed and lane restrictions for truckers instead of travel bans. It says that would give PennDOT a chance to clear the roads and the trucks could keep moving.