PORTLAND – Usually, High Street seems pretty wide to me, with two lanes going in the same direction for much of its length.

But sitting in the cab of a snowplowing truck — which is 32 feet wide with its side plow blade lowered — I felt downright claustrophobic. I actually flinched a couple of times as the blade seemed to come within a couple feet of cars and pedestrians.

“Yeah, there’s not a lot of room on most of these streets,” said Joe Bernard, a plow driver for the city of Portland, as he drove me around during the Jan. 18 snowstorm. “One of the biggest problems, when it’s this tight, is people pulling out or walking out in front of me. They think this thing can stop on a dime. But it can’t.”

Avoiding pedestrians, open car doors and vehicles trying to pull out in front of him is second nature to Bernard after more than 12 years as a city plow driver. He’s got giant side mirrors and a rear-mounted camera hooked to a dashboard monitor to help his view.

But a lot of it is a feel gained by experience.

Like when Bernard was turning right from Temple Street onto Spring Street downtown and a car zipped around him on the left. He slowed down, let the car pass and resumed plowing.

“When I started, I might have veered right to avoid him, but if I did that just then, I would have hit that curb and it would have pushed me into the oncoming cars,” Bernard said. “This definitely takes a while to get the hang of.”

Plow drivers in Portland get plenty of time to get the hang of it, with shifts that can be as long as 16 hours. Because the drivers are trying to keep up with falling snow, there usually isn’t a lunch break, either. Five- or 10-minute stops for coffee or food are the norm.

When I rode with Bernard, it had been snowing for about three hours, and the forecast was for snow all day and night, with accumulations of 8 inches to a foot. So he was planning on a long shift.

And during the winter, he has to be ready to work at a moment’s notice.

“I’ve definitely missed some events, some New Year’s Eve parties over the years,” he said. “That can be a little tough.”

The noise in the truck takes some getting used to. The entire cab vibrates due to chains on the tires and plow blades scraping the ground. The hydraulics used to lift the plow blades are loud, too.

Then there are manhole covers. At one point, driving on Commercial Street, I thought somebody had lit a firecracker under us.

“Oh, that was just a manhole cover,” Bernard said. “They stick up enough so that our front blade hits them. No good way to avoid it.”

And we weren’t even going very fast. Bernard’s average speed while plowing is about 10 mph, maybe a little more. When I was with him, his assignment was to continually plow a route of main thoroughfares around downtown — High Street, State Street, Congress Street, Commercial Street and Route 1. The route, outlined on a map in the truck, covers 17.5 miles and is supposed to take about 90 minutes, at 10 mph.

The main thoroughfares are to be made passable before the secondary roads are plowed at all, Bernard told me. So at some point, maybe after snow has stopped falling, a supervisor will make the call for secondary roads to be plowed.

Though people certainly complain when they believe their street — and most people live on secondary roads — is not plowed in a timely fashion, Bernard says he doesn’t take it personally.

As we continued to see people pulling out in front of the truck, Bernard explained to me why safety is so crucial to snowplowing.

Making sure nobody gets hurt, of course, is the first reason.

But any sort of accident involving a plow truck means losing valuable plowing time.

“If you hit something, the police have to be called, a supervisor might come out, and you could lose an hour and a half of plowing time,” Bernard said. “And you don’t want plows to be off the road if they don’t have to be.”

One unique hazard Portland plow drivers contend with is having to plow narrow Old Port streets on weekend nights, when revelers from the area’s bars are often in a risky mood.

“I’ve seen guys jump out in front of the plow,” Bernard said. “So you’ve got to be prepared for that on Saturday nights.”

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]