Worries about salt damaging grass and water quality are not as bad as some feared in the '90s. Salt on roads is diluted by melting snow and extremely high amounts would have to be used for damage to occur. Seattle's "plowed streets" are really sprinkled with sand and "snow-packed," leaving snow and ice on major arterials thus requiring all-wheel, four-wheel or chains on vehicles. Many hilly, icy roads were closed in downtown Seattle for days from several snowstorms that hit the area in December. Thousands of folks were housebound, including the elderly, due to the dangerous streets. The chief of staff for the Seattle Department of Transportation, Alex Wiggins, points out the obvious in the difference between the city he works for and other places where they know how to deal with winter weather, "It doesn't look like anything you'd find in Chicago or New York."
Seattle uses plow equipment with rubber-edged blades to decrease the damage to manhole covers and roads but it doesn't scrape off ice. But plowing has its problems, too. Naturally, snow plows use more fuel the more they are used. They generate carbon dioxide.
Plowing and spreading sand or other abrasive materials intended to increase friction between vehicles and snow or ice has been used for decades for winter road maintenance in the United States despite studies which show it worthless. As far back as the 1950s, studies in Germany revealed after only 10 to 12 vehicle passes, sand is ineffective on snow-covered surfaces. Benefits are only temporary unless chemical additives are combined with the sand to make it adhere to the icy surface.
Winter-highway-maintenance expert Prof. Wilfrid Nixon of the University of Iowa College of Engineering says good, old-fashioned salt is the best ice-buster. And another thing for the environmentally conscious to consider is the impact accidents have on the environment. "Every crash in the winter is an environmental disaster," Nixon said. "You have spills of engine oil, gas, coolant.It may not be hundreds of miles of road, but the effect is intensely local."
Mark Devries of the American Public Works Association says social, financial and politics all play a part in decisions made by departments of transportation about snow clearance, in addition to science.
Yet yearly, an average of 1.4 million car accidents in the U.S. are the result of adverse weather conditions. These accidents result in 7,000 deaths, more than 800,000 injuries, and $42 billion in economic loss. Environmentalists who place a higher value on ditch grass than public safety are being negligent. Public officials who bow to their wishes in municipalities such as Seattle may find themselves facing lawsuits from accidents caused by snow and ice that should have been removed.
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