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Good Question: Why Don’t We Use Sand On The Roads Anymore?

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(credit: CBS) Jason DeRusha
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Let’s hope the roads are better after Wednesday night’s snowstorm than they were after the last one.

The awful commutes following the last big snowfall had a lot of you emailing us this question: Why don’t we use sand on the roads anymore?

Good Question.

When it comes to the war on icy roads, there’s no question that sand is on the outs. It all has to do with cost, messiness and questionable effectiveness.

Kent Barnard is a MnDOT spokesperson who knows a lot about clearing the roads. He says we don’t use sand nowadays as much as we used to.

“Sand provides us with traction, it provides that grit…for vehicle tires to get moving. But sand does not melt ice,” he said.

Barnard has driven a plow for 20 years, and he says that sand, depending on the road surface, can easily be blown off.

Indeed, a Wisconsin study found that at highway speeds sand is swept off the road after eight to 12 cars roll over it. That’s pretty fast.

And just to cover the roads, you have to dump a lot of sand. A truck loaded with salt can cover 22.5 miles of two-lane highway. To do that same stretch with sand requires seven loads.

But the major concern with sand, according to Barnard, is its environmental impact.

“I’ve heard of holding ponds that have gotten quite filled up with the sand over the years,” Barnard said.

He added: “It also presents a clean-up issue in the springtime.”

Most suburbs have stopped their routine use of sand. In Edina, for instance, not using sand cut the city’s spring street sweeping time in half.

But moving to an all salt routine isn’t quite on the agenda. That’s because straight salt doesn’t work that well as temperatures approach zero degrees.

When temperatures are that low, MnDOT uses a salt and sand mixture on the roads.

There is one exception, however, to the movement towards all salt — and that’s Minneapolis.

Why? Because MnDOT knows it can’t plow the residential streets before people drive on the snow and smash it down. Thus, the city still uses a lot of sand to give some traction to those driving on the snow.

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