University of Nevada helps develop a safer snowplow |

University of Nevada helps develop a safer snowplow

RENO – Snowplows. They can be a blessing but sometimes a curse for northern Nevada motorists.

Without them, drivers would be left to face treacherous winter roads alone, and the Sierra would be impassable.

But the plodding, yellow behemoths kick up snow that cakes their taillights and makes them hard to see in traffic.

And, fighting in the front line of storms, snowplow drivers must constantly battle visibility problems caused by blowing snow.

The problem of seeing and being seen is about to change because of a collaborative project between the University of Nevada, Reno, and the Nevada Department of Transportation.

Mechanical engineering professors Cahit Evrensel, Yanyao Jiang and Kwang Kim and their team of undergraduates, Onur Dur, Xiaowei “Arthur” Hu and Kurn Ma, are working on the project.

They have developed design changes and systems such as the “taillight puffer,” which uses a high-pressure nozzle to keep a snowplow’s rear lights clear of dirt and snow.

The goal is to help snowplow drivers do a better job while keeping them and the motorists around them safe, said Tracy Larkin-Thomason, a state Transportation Department assistant engineer.

“You’d be surprised at how many people crash into the back of snowplows,” she said. “It’s a big problem.”

Three snowplows have been rear-ended by motorists in northern Nevada in recent weeks, she said.

Motorists often drive too fast for weather conditions, but the danger is compounded by snow obscuring the back of snowplows and their taillights. Transportation Department workers have been testing the UNR solutions along the Mount Rose Highway and in Elko.

“A lot of ideas that came up were from the guys on the road,” Larkin-Thomason said. “They know if something is working better or causing more of a problem, or if it just needs a minor change.”

Field tests last winter weren’t very successful because of poor snowfall, but this year is providing a bumper crop of snowy conditions.

Some of the modifications being tested include an air foil over the back of the snowplow to prevent snow accumulations that make the vehicle almost invisible to following motorists, and transparent splash barriers toward the front to keep side windows clear of snow.

Michael Murphy, Department of Transportation assistant district engineer in Elko, said the air foil has been particularly useful.

“The taillights, warning lights and all that tend to get coated with ice and snow when you’re plowing, and it looks just white from the back, but the air foil keeps the back end unobscured,” he said.

Murphy said not all modifications are perfect but some are doing the job intended.

“I think it’s something that, with a little bit of work, really has potential,” he said.

Kim, chairman of the mechanical engineering department and a co-principal on the project, said finding design solutions was the first phase of the project.

“The second phase will be more practical application of what we have found, so we’re now in the process of negotiating (with the Department of Transportation) the scope of the work and what we will be studying,” he said.

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