Good or bad? Highway truck bans during snowstorms
At 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 27, as a heavy snow piled over three lanes of traffic on Interstate 95 in Darien, two cars and a jack-knifed tractor-trailer collided.
A half-hour later, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy authorized the first truck ban on Connecticut highways since the blizzard of 1996 when then-Gov. John G. Rowland ordered the state's major arteries closed to tractor-trailers in preparation for a weather bomb dropping 16 inches of snow.
Curtailed by snow, ice and early-morning traffic, emergency responders took five hours to clear the scene of the pre-dawn multi-vehicle crash.
At 10 a.m., the truck ban was lifted.
By noon, three more tractor-trailer crashes happened, clogging stretches of the highway in Darien, Norwalk and New Haven, and sending a 41-year-old Milford woman to Norwalk Hospital with neck and back pain.
Since the post-Christmas blizzard, the region has seen nine storms, more than 40 inches of snow and at least 31 crashes on I-95 involving big rigs during those storms between Greenwich and New Haven.
Thirty-seven trucks -- State Police reports do not always distinguish between big rig types -- were involved in those 31 accidents.
Police found drivers of 15 of them at fault.
Among the wreckage: a freightliner, traveling too fast for snowy conditions, that ping-ponged between guardrails on either side of the highway on Jan. 7; and two tractor-trailers that crashed into two Stratford fire engines, sending six firefighters to Bridgeport Hospital with minor injuries on Jan. 7.
The Jan. 27 ban on highway truck travel was controversial. Truckers denounced it. Commuters praised it. But it proved to be a five-hour pause between three early-morning truck crashes and four more that occurred shortly after the ban was lifted.
It all begs the question: when, and for how long, should the governor issue bans on truck travel?
On Jan. 12, Malloy delayed the start of the workday for state employees, urged businesses across the state to open late and issued an advisory asking drivers of big rigs to keep off the roads. Fifteen inches of snow fell that day, according to measurements taken at Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford.
"I think that was great," said Michael J. Riley, president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut, a group that advocates for truck operators. "For everyone's safety, it's a good move to urge people to stay off the roads in that kind of situation if they don't have to be out on them."
On Wednesday, Jan. 26, another winter storm was brewing. The state Department of Transportation's meteorology service was forecasting three to six inches of overnight precipitation. The region got that precipitation, and then some. By morning, lower southwest Connecticut was buried in about 14 inches of fresh snowfall.
At 5 a.m., two tractor-trailers that lost traction climbing a hill were sprawled across I-95. Another big rig jack-knifed near Exit 13 in Darien.
It was then that Malloy issued a five-hour ban, effective immediately, on highway truck travel.
It was also then that Riley received a call at home notifying him of the ban.
"At 5 a.m., we're not in a position to alert our membership of a spontaneous truck ban," he later explained.
"These trucks are traveling around the country 24 hours a day, seven days a week and there's no button you can press to stop them. It was a premature decision and it wasn't a good one."
The ban, however, proved immensely helpful for DOT plow drivers. Nothing makes the job of plow drivers more difficult, transportation department spokesman Kevin Nursick said, than a pack of big rigs on the highway.
"Without a doubt," he said, "if we had to deal with tractor-trailers on the road during that storm, the result would have been disastrous."
Some truckers ignored the ban, or never got word of it. State Police Lt. J. Paul Vance said troopers did not ticket drivers traveling in violation of the ban. Troopers who encountered truckers did alert them of the ban and suggested weigh stations and rest stops where they could pull over.
Despite what some drivers may think, an absence of big rigs on the highway does not make travel safer for other motorists, Vance said. A truck ban, he said, is simply a measure to aid snow removal and reduce major traffic jams. Crashes involving big trucks generally take longer to clear than those involving cars only, he said.
Truckers who heeded the ban were disadvantaged, Riley said.
"We had trucking companies that paid drivers to sit in the terminal, and they looked at the DOT cameras and saw their competition driving up and down the highway," he said.
"They were trying to be law-abiding people and it ended up costing them money. In some cases, it cost them their perishable food products that spoiled and, for some, it cost them customers."
A spokesman for Malloy, David Bednarz, called the ban "helpful" and said last week the governor would consider enacting it again, if needed.
"I think it was a pretty radical move," said Chris Gallo, president of Connecticut Commuters Inc. "I say that because, when it's bad out, it's bad out for everybody. I would have probably banned the highways for everybody. People who are out there in their cars who don't know how to drive in this weather are probably more dangerous than these professionals in the trucks who, most of them, know what they're doing."
Riley supports government-issued advisories urging motorists to keep off the roads unless necessary during foul weather, but said he is vehemently opposed to truck bans in "almost every scenario."
He supported a 16-hour voluntary highway ban on tandem-trucks that was imposed, with ample time for warning, starting Feb. 3, during an ice storm.
"In the DOT's defense," he said, "I was told it was snowing at the rate of three and a half inches of snow an hour for hours straight that morning. They had their hands full. But the answer is not a truck ban.
"If you tell a driver on I-95: 'truck ban,' what's he supposed to do? There's no place for these truckers to go when you say, in the middle of a storm, 'truck ban.' It's not something you can just turn off and on again."
In short: "It was a terrible idea," he said.
Riley remembers the blizzard of 1996 and the ban Rowland issued on highway truck travel. Some truckers high-tailed for New York. Others tried to continue on their routes by bypassing Connecticut. Before long, there was a line of big rigs parked along the highway.
"People were legitimately pissed off about it," Riley said. "I talked to Governor Rowland afterward and he said he would never do it again."
ACROSS THE EAST
There have been so many tandem truck bans on Massachusetts highways this winter that Department of Transportation spokesman Adam Hurtubise has lost count.
During major snow and ice storms -- the Northeast has been hit with about 10 of them so far this season -- state police can and have restricted tandem trucks from traveling the Mass Pike (Interstate 90) "for safety purposes," he said.
In New York, decisions to ban tandem trucks from highway travel come from the regional state police troops. On this topic, troop commanders in upstate New York and the state's metro region tend to differ.
Sgt. Kern Swoboda, a veteran state trooper in Albany, said he has never heard of a snow-related truck ban on highways in upstate New York.
"I'm not aware of a time, in the 20 years I've been here, where we ban a certain type of vehicle from a roadway," he said, adding, "We're not going to isolate a roadway ban to certain type of vehicle."
Yet on Feb. 2 there was an advisory tandem truck ban on Interstates 684 and 84 in Orange, Dutchess, Putnam and Westchester counties in New York's metro area.
"It's all going to depend on a case-by-case basis," Swodoba said.
Snowy conditions haven't closed any roadways in New Jersey or Rhode Island this year, according to spokespersons for each state's department of transportation.
"As far as I know," said Bryan Lucier, spokesman for Rhode Island's transportation department, "there have been no highway bans on tractor-trailers or trucks ever, in history. We don't have any regulations in place."
Joe Dee, spokesman for New Jersey's transportation department, tells a similar story.
"When our roads are open, they're open," he said. "They're open to anyone driving any permitted vehicle who wants to use them. We don't make distinctions between tractor-trailers and cars." But the turnpike does. About half the New Jersey Turnpike has inside lanes limited to travel by car only, thereby separating big rigs from passenger vehicles. The remaining lanes are open to travel by all vehicles.
Does this segregation of car and truck diminish the apparent need for truck bans on the turnpike? "I don't know," Dee said.
But Dee does recall the first and only time inclement weather shut down the turnpike. A ferocious 1996 storm, one of the most paralyzing Northeast blizzards in years, prompted officials to ban all motorists from New Jersey roadways.
Generally, New Jersey's DOT is more inclined to recommend that motorists stay off roads in messy weather than to ban motorists from traveling them, Dee said, but any future travel bans would likely pertain to all motorists. Inclement weather creates dangerous driving conditions for all drivers, he said, not just drivers of big rigs.
On the morning of Feb. 2, as a two-day ice storm settled in, Malloy's team, DOT representatives and Riley came to an agreement: a 16-hour voluntary highway ban on tandem-trucks would begin midnight Feb. 3.
This time, Riley was consulted and given ample time to alert the trucking companies, he said. He agreed to the travel advisory, he said, because it was voluntary and affected only the drivers of twin-trailers, a small percentage of cargo-carriers. Earlier New York State had issued the I-684 ban, so Malloy extended it into Connecticut.
"I think (the government) realized there might have been an overreaction the first time out with the decision to go with the mandatory ban ... on trucks of all kinds," Riley said.
"It was a serious step to take, and I think they realize that. I think they understand now that you can't interrupt the flow of commerce every time it snows."