Snow removal — more precisely, lack of snow removal — carries hidden costs

When I heard the city’s decision to stick with the status quo when it came to snow removal, I wondered if we were prioritizing the right things.
Poorly maintained roads can lead to crashes, Joanne Seiff writes. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

After a particularly snowy morning with difficult road conditions, a few preschool parents discussed the mess as they dropped off their kids. A teacher, born in Winnipeg, jumped in. "It wasn't always this way!" she exclaimed. "The roads were clear when I was a kid." I'm a newcomer here, but I really want to believe her.

When I heard the city's decision to stick with the status quo when it came to snow removal, I wondered if we were prioritizing the right things. If our current system is the most cost effective approach, what did the city actually analyze? Contractor costs versus the cost of city workers? What else does it include?

There are many hidden costs to poor snow clearing. I'm no expert, and I don't have access to the detailed city reports. Instead, I thought about the costs we bear when it's hard to get around in wintertime Winnipeg. Who takes all this into account? Perhaps it's time to ask an actuary to get involved. What level of insurance does one need to manage the risks of our snow-covered streets and sidewalks?

There are many snow-related injuries. Broken bones are commonplace. I've heard of at least two professors at the University of Manitoba who have fallen while getting around campus (a location the city doesn't clear, but it snows there, too). Many more people at the U of M have mentioned poor winter walking conditions.

The tales of people hurt by wintertime falls are anecdotal, but our health-care system has to pay for the care of every person with a broken bone or other injury. That's not just an initial emergency room visit, but followup care, likely including physio. In the U.S., the litigious climate sometimes forces people to do a better snow removal job. Winnipeg's lack of a litigious environment may be good in many ways, but if an injured person doesn't sue, perhaps others never know the repercussions of their environment's snowy, icy driving or walking conditions.

Car crashes costly

How many winter days begin with reports of a terrible car accident? These accidents inevitably result in trauma, perhaps even someone's injury or death. While secondary, there's also damage to vehicles and other property. Manitoba Public Insurance probably has a very good idea how much financial damage snow and ice cause. As a province, we continue to pay for slippery streets long after the city's snow clearing finally begins. Our individual insurance has to cover the high costs of these wintertime accidents, too.

Property damage isn't solely caused by car accidents on the icy roads. Plow drivers cause damage if they aren't doing a good job. In my neighborhood, we can still see the remains of poor plowing jobs from big storms a few years ago. Hundred-year-old cast-iron fences are bent permanently and stonework tumbled over. Yet when it comes to getting contractors to pay for this damage, the onus is on the homeowner to seek reparations. In many cases, the homeowner is stuck footing the bill if he or she cares to see the damage repaired. In others, the contractor may be forced to pay for the damage, but who covers the costs in the end? The taxpayer, who's stuck with the cost either way, whether on his repairs or through the contractor's future plowing cost.

How much do slips and falls cost, Joanne Seiff wonders. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)
My relatives near Washington, D.C., recently faced a storm that dumped 50-75 centimetres of snow. While that storm's costs are in the billions, everyone from local schools to the U.S. government had a different response than we do in Winnipeg. Every authority in multiple states encouraged citizens to stay home. They did a quick cost-benefit analysis and figured asking people in a densely populated area to stay home while they cleared the roads would likely save a great deal of damage, money and lives.

Winnipeg doesn't get such large amounts of snowfall, but we also never have snow days. I'm wondering what the true costs of our city's approach to snow clearing might be. How many of us lose work time or a chance to have dinner with our kids? Were we trying to commute on messy mashed-potatoes roads because the city hasn't decided to clear them yet? If we add up the broken bones, car wrecks, property damage and loss of life, is our current system much more expensive than previously estimated? Should MPI and the Winnipeg Health Region's costs for wintertime accidents be part of the bill? Is it cheaper sometimes just to stay home?

What would it cost us to have the plows on the roads and sidewalks when the snow starts, instead of measuring the final snowfall and then deciding whether to clear the streets? How many injuries, deaths and totalled cars are worth the expense?

Joanne Seiff is the author of two books. She writes, designs and teaches in Winnipeg.