Road salt test needed

By Observer editorial January 11, 2013 09:57 am

Face it. You can’t drive the same way in January as you do in June, especially in the Northeast Oregon mountains. Some drivers, however, seem to have not received the memo.

With the recent bus accident on Interstate 84 that killed nine passengers, the cause of which has not yet been determined, the highway safety discussion has taken center stage. There are many sides to the debate. One argument is over how highway crews in Oregon go about clearing highways in winter.

Like in many other areas, such as not pumping your own gasoline or speed limits, Oregon marches to the beat of its own drummer.

Most other states embrace the idea of road salt as the most efficient and cost-effective means of melting ice and making roads safe. Oregon, however, uses the alternative chemical deicer magnesium chloride due to cost and the possibility of salt causing water contamination and damage to plants, cars, bridges and the road itself.

Who is right is debatable. Now, Oregon is using salt as part of two five-year pilot programs on an 11-mile stretch of I-5 over the Siskiyou Pass and on U.S. Highway 95 in the southeast corner of the state.

It may be surprising that the federal interstate system changes from state to state. Speed limits and how snow is cleared vary greatly.

The result? Driving conditions change in a big way from California, Nevada and Idaho to Oregon. Drivers complain about going from clear highways in the other states to packed snow in Oregon and being forced to chain up and white knuckle it. 

Crashes and traffic delays are a frequent problem during the winter months in the Blue Mountains. 

At the moment, the question is whether Oregon will increase its salt use — or whether other states will ban salt use in favor of other deicers. Either way, it’s a good time to get the debate back on the table and to study what would be safest for drivers and the environment.