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Helmut Schmidt, Published February 15 2013

Snowplow crashes in F-M rare, but mailboxes take beating

WEST FARGO – The winter storm dances between snowplows and parked vehicles are the kind where you don’t want your partners to get too close, Scott Tiffany said.

With ice on the street and pressure to get roads cleared, rearview mirrors sometimes get ripped off and bumpers thumped, he said.

“It can be very difficult, especially on some of the side roads,” the West Fargo city snowplow operator said. “It’s happened. Not by me, knock on wood.”

Despite the many snowfalls in the area, West Fargo, Fargo and Moorhead report few accidents where plows hit vehicles.

West Fargo has five recorded accidents in the past few years – two in 2010, two in 2011 and one so far this year, none of them serious, public works officials reported.

“We don’t get very many of them,” said Barry Johnson, director of the city’s Public Works Department.

In this year’s crash, the plow hit a curb then hit the car, Johnson said.

Fargo, despite its greater size, also reports relatively few accidents.

From December 2009 through mid-January of this year, Fargo reported 13 accidents – two in 2009, four in 2010, three in 2011, three in 2012 and one so far this year.

Moorhead had two crashes in 2010 (one city vehicle, one resident’s car); two in 2011 (one city vehicle, one resident’s car) and one crash with a city vehicle in 2012, said Operations Director Chad Martin, who oversees cleanup and repair of the city’s streets.

“It’s a fairly minor occurrence. The car is parked at the curb, and that’s a classic for us. Most of them are minor dings,” Martin said. “Once in a while, we plow into them.”

Martin said scrapes and dings can come when a plow driver’s depth perception is thrown off by blowing snow or at night.

Accidents are tracked to see if they are habitual for certain operators, he said.

“It’s more of a problem of (plow drivers) trying to do too good of a job with the roads,” Martin said.

Ben Dow, director of Fargo’s Public Works Department, said the city has a Global Positioning Satellite system mounted on its trucks and plows that help determine if a city plow was anywhere near a vehicle reported damaged.

Dow said that after a 5-inch snowfall earlier this winter, a caller complained about scratches on a car mirror caused by a plow. That was disproved by tracking the times and locations of the plows in that part of the city and comparing them with when the owner felt the vehicle was damaged, he said.

That said, during cleanup after our recent blizzard, a plow did clip a vehicle’s outside mirror.

“Generally, if we hit a mirror, it’s not just a scratch,” Dow said. Instead, the mirror is ripped off or left dangling, he said.

Plowing narrow, snow-choked roads and weaving around snowbound cars and trucks is not for those without any nerve, Tiffany said.

There can be little clearance, and when two plows tag team down a road, snow flying off the lead blade can obscure the vision of the follow-on plow, Tiffany said.

“We try to get as close as we can to the vehicle without causing damage to myself or the vehicle. You have to be careful; it gets icy out there,” he said.

Going postal

It’s mailboxes that get smacked around the worst when it’s time to clean up after a snowfall, though not often because of direct contact with plow blades.

“If we hit it, you might never find it,” Dow said.

But that also makes it pretty clear that the city will have to pay for the repair, Dow said.

In the F-M area, the heavy chunks of snow tossed up by plows are the usual culprit for knocking mailboxes off their perches or snapping rotted posts, officials said.

In 2008-09, Fargo had 77 claims for mailbox repairs, followed by 73 claims in 2009-10. That dipped to 62 claims in 2010-11, and fell to 15 claims in the winter-that-hardly-was in 2011-12. So far this snow season, there have been 24 claims.

Martin said Moorhead had seven mailbox repair or replacement claims in 2010, 13 in 2011 and five in 2012.

West Fargo does not keep records of mailbox claims, but Johnson estimates the city averages 10 a winter.

Whether the city pays for a mailbox repair varies.

In West Fargo, if it’s hard to tell what caused the mailbox to break, the city will go ahead and replace it, Johnson said.

In Moorhead, the city will take responsibility for a plow breaking a mailbox. But if it’s the snow coming off the plow that breaks a mailbox, then the homeowner is out of luck, Martin said, because the box should have been better built or maintained.

“If we weren’t overexuberant, then we’re sorry, but it’s your fault,” Martin said.

Each of the cities has temporary mailboxes if needed through the spring, when the ground thaws and post or brickwork repairs can be made, officials said.

Fargo and West Fargo snowplow claims are insured through the North Dakota Insurance Reserve Fund. Moorhead is insured through the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust.

Area snow forecast

Today: 30 percent chance of light snow. About a half-inch possible.

Sunday: 20 percent chance of light snow in the afternoon.

Monday: Slight chance of light snow.

Tuesday: Partly sunny

Source: NOAA

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583

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