A year into the Michigan Department of Transportation’s (MDOT) initiative to engage the public in naming snowplows across the state, an update on progress.
Shortly after MDOT launched the project in 2021, inspired by a plow-naming venture by Transport Scotland, Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist visited an elementary school in Benton Harbor where a class of fifth graders named a plow Tiger in honor of their school mascot. Gilchrist visited the school and spoke to the students shortly afterward.
On this week’s podcast, Nick Schirripa, MDOT’s Southwest Region media relations representative, talks about the project, the eye-popping numbers of submissions it inspired and why it has been a fun but important endeavor. He and Courtney Bates, a department analyst and web site administrator, worked together to create the naming contest, sort through the names and even put the names of plows on the Mi Drive site so they can be tracked in real time.
As the Detroit Free Press reported in December, ”One year and more than 15,000 possible plow monikers later, and a handful of Michigan Department of Transportation staffers say they see a light at the end of the tunnel. But the project isn't quite over.”
Schirripa talks about the interest this has generated and why it helps with education about what’s involved in clearing snow from roads in Michigan winters and how the plow-naming project helps in education efforts about safety.
Jeff Cranson: Welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson.
Cranson: So, once again, I’m talking today with Nick Schirripa, who is our Southwest media relations representative at MDOT, and he also has been instrumental in getting off the ground an initiative that we sort of borrowed from some other places, most notably, Scotland. And we took it to, I would say, new heights, and that was the idea of naming snowplows to raise awareness about where the plows are in the state, but also just to have some fun with it and find new ways to remind people about the safety imperatives involved in plowing snow and winter maintenance. So, Nick, thanks a lot for taking time to talk about this.
Nick Schirripa: Oh, shoot. Thanks for having me.
Cranson: So, here we are just about a year into this, and it's caught on well. It took a while. It got some media coverage early on, and then there was a lull. Part of that, of course, was that we were in the off season. But this winter there's been a lot of interest, and we've made great strides in naming the plows and getting those names on the Mi Drive website. Tell me, as you reflect on this, what you think about the program.
Schirripa: This second wind has really been rejuvenating? It's been a lot of fun. It’s a labor of love to be sure, but it's been a lot of fun. We started, as you said almost, exactly a year ago with what seemed like kind of a shot in the dark. We tossed it out on Twitter. Within a matter of hours, you know, we get a couple hundred ideas thrown back at us and a lot of interest. We got a lot of really positive energy, and that's when we decided that, yeah, let's do this. Let's jump on it, and we just pressed ahead. And, you know, we designed the web page to get the name submissions kind of put together and have kind of a clearinghouse for that. And we got the press release put out and immediately got some really great media interest in it. And we had an event we put together with an elementary school in Benton Harbor, and the Lieutenant Governor was kind enough to make time to be there for that and—
Cranson: Yeah, let's talk about that a little bit.
Cranson: In fact, let's listen to something the Lieutenant Governor had to say that day when he went to Benton Harbor to meet with the kids at the elementary school that named their plow Tiger.
Lt. Gov. Gilchrist: It is awesome! The kids were super excited about it. I had them teach me some things about how the snowplow works, and I just think the exposure that the department is giving to children about the types of careers and the people, the professionals, that take care of them, take care of the community every day. This kind of connection and relationship, it's really beautiful.
Cranson: So, yeah, talk about what it was like being there that day.
Schirripa: That was so much fun. We went with, you know, it was just one elementary school class that was chosen. They picked the name Tiger. They named the plow after their elementary school mascot, which so apropos. It was a lot of fun. One of the maintenance workers at the Coloma Garage actually made the letters, just vinyl stickers, and we put a big front blade on the plow just for that occasion and put the stickers on the plow. And the kids got to sign it, and they all got to take turns sitting with the plow driver in the plow. And they really got a chance to, you know, not just in words, but an actual hands-on experience with a snowplow. It was neat to see. It wasn't just, you know, this big orange machine that drove by. They really got to get an experience with the plow and the driver and understand what plow operators go through every day during the winter when they're clearing snow.
Cranson: That's the best part of this is anytime you can do something like that it humanizes these otherwise nameless, faceless, government workers and getting them to see these are real people that, you know, are in my community and coach little league and do other things, you know, that's a great thing about it. And it's probably not crazy to think that it's too early to start thinking about careers at any age, given the problems getting truck drivers and all kinds of skilled workers and various trades, including snowplow drivers. This is something to think about.
Schirripa: That's absolutely true. While we're having a lot of fun picking names for plows, I think that is the happy accident. Certainly, that was our intention, but for everybody else outside of our agency, that's kind of the spin-off benefit of this effort is it does humanize what is one of the probably the most taken for granted, or least recognized, groups of folks and most important groups of folks in our agency, the maintenance workers, the plow drivers. I mean, these are the folks who are on our roads every day doing some of the most dangerous work we have to offer and often go overlooked, I think, to some extent, or at least taken for granted. And they really are rock stars, borderline superheroes, in some of the work they do every day. It puts a face on them, right? It, as you said, humanizes them to a great extent and gives us a chance to put them out front for a change and really let folks see them, let them be seen by the general public, and I think that's important to recognize work they do.
Cranson: Yeah, let's talk about what drives your enthusiasm for this because, I mean, early on, you and Courtney Bates, who's one of our web administrators and has done yeoman's work getting this on the site and doing a lot of the technical behind-the-scenes things to make this initiative a reality, you guys both embraced it early on. But I don't think you could have known, any of us could have known, when we decided to go forward with this how much fun it would be, and how much feedback we'd get, and how many people would participate in offering names. Some names, you know, absurd and not at all serious but others, you know, outright hilarious. So, what do you think about that a year later?
Schirripa: There have been moments, and Courtney I think would say the same thing, with side splitting laughter. I mean, some of the names have just been amazingly funny, witty. There have been some great plays on names with Alice Scooper, The Big LePlowski, Kid Rock Salt. I mean, you know, there are a half a dozen that are plays on the Red Wings like Gordie Plow, Steve Icerman. As a hockey guy—
Cranson: Which you like those.
Schirripa: Yeah, those hit home.
Cranson: You know, and Alice Scooper has a Michigan connection too. So, that's good.
Schirripa: Sure. The Plowthagorean Theorem that one made me cackle. I absolutely loved that one when I first read it. I don't know why. I can't tell you because I’m an English major. I’m not a math guy. Plowthagorean Theorem? Come on, that's amazing.
Cranson: Probably because you have it committed to memory.
Schirripa: Absolutely. It’s a2+b2=c2.
Schirripa: I mean, who doesn't know the Pythagorean theorem? So, yeah, there have been some really, really high, fun moments. But I think, again, Courtney would agree that there have been some really low moments too. I mean, not just in the amount of work. When you stare at a list of 15,400 names your eyes start to burn after a while. But, you know, we've seen the best of people, but there have been moments we've also seen the worst. That's been, you know, in all fairness, in all honesty, those are some of the lowest moments and some of the hardest moments too.
Cranson: Yeah, that's the times we live in. Certainly, with social media, if you're going to try to get the benefits of social media, you're going to have to deal with that too. But, fortunately, there's a lot more good than bad out there, and—
Cranson: People have embraced this, I think. Stay with us. We'll have more on the other side of this important message.
Narrator: [Car honking] Know before you go. Head on over to Mi Drive to check out the latest on road construction and possible delays along your route. For a detailed map, head over to Michigan.gov/Drive.
Cranson: Talk about what you think, going forward, this could do to help with the awareness aspect. People like to go on the website and see where the plows are. And, you know, I should point out here that, you know, two-thirds of the plowing across the state, or more actually, maybe more like three-quarters of it, is done by local contracted agencies, mostly counties. And MDOT doesn't even have the majority of the forces doing the plowing. So, if this could eventually expand to some of those local agencies that do the plowing, it could be even a have a bigger impact.
Schirripa: Sure, the city of Lansing has already taken advantage of this, and—
Schirripa: They've named some of their plows too. I mean, you know, we we're in our second winter, and like I said, it's been a second wind for us with a second winner of media coverage. It's almost like it went dormant over the summer, which makes perfect sense. I mean, who's thinking about snowplows during the summer, during the fall? Then as soon as we finished naming plows and just kind of reminded folks it was out there, and it popped back up on Mi Drive again, it got its second wind. And I’m talking about it again with the media and talking about it again with the public. And we finally got the rest of the plows named, and Courtney got them on Mi Drive. And, you know, just for the sake of clarity, there is a slight discrepancy in numbers. We have about 330 plows, and that's kind of a moving target, but about 330 plows in the state inventory, and we have all of those plows named. Folks are going to see roughly 300. I think it's 299 on the website, that lists on the website. That's because that's the number of plows that are active on the Mi Drive website. We have a number of plows that are in a bullpen, so to speak. We have a number that are backups and that are taken out of service and waiting for their turn should a plow go down. We have a number that have been taken out of service because they're broken, and they're not currently in service. We had a number of trucks that are named but are brand new and have not yet been put in Mi Drive and haven't been activated yet. So, out of those other 30-ish plows that aren't listed on the website, it's just because they're not on Mi Drive yet. So, that's the discrepancy if folks are counting. They hear me say 330 an awful lot, but then they count the number of names on the website, and there's not 330ish yet and that's why. But people are really, you know, the energy behind it is positive and it's fun and that's great. And I think moving forward that can only help everybody when it comes to attention to Mi Drive. If we know where the plows are, we know what kind of work the plow drivers are doing. Again, it is drawing that attention to the work they're doing both from a human perspective, but also from an agency perspective knowing where we are. That helps, you know, know what road conditions are like, and it helps know actually where we are and what work we're doing from an accountability standpoint. And, as you pointed out, we're a pretty small percentage with 25% to 30% of the plows that are on the roads at any given point because so many local agencies also have fleets out there. And that draws attention to the fact that there are other agencies doing the same work. The more attention, I think, plow fleets get, the better. If people are more aware of where they are and what they're doing, that increases safety. It increases positive attention. It increases awareness, and that's a benefit for everyone.
Cranson: So, I’m reminded of kind of the understated approach that Iain McDonald, who is involved in winter maintenance at Transport Scotland. And that's largely what our inspiration was for taking this on. And I remember talking to him last year, and he was so low-key about it. He said, going to your point about accountability, that a big driver for them was that when they had snowstorms, and people say, “We never see a gritter on the road.” That is what they call snowplows in Scotland, gritters. So, they created the trunk road gritter tracker and named the plows, and that made it easy for people to find out where they were. And somehow it became much more real with people, like, “Okay, I guess they are out there doing that.” So, ideally, it's all about awareness. It's all about education. This is not a huge, you know, investment in resources. The time it's taken you guys to sift through the names, certainly, there's that manpower hours involved, but overall, I think it's a pretty good cost benefit ratio, don't you?
Schirripa: Absolutely. I think the investment in work hours that Courtney and I have put in just going through the names and picking the, you know, balance of them and the hours that our maintenance folks and other communications folks have put into picking most of them and getting them on Mi Drive, the work hours is negligible. If you spread that across a year, you know, it's a couple weeks. It's no big deal, but the payout, as Iain said, is just that accountability factor. How many times a year do we hear, “Where are the plows?” And it's not just, you know, you and I, or Courtney and I, but everybody at MDOT. How many times do we hear that when we know they're out around the clock during a winter weather event? We know they're there, and it's hard to pinpoint them. Well, we have the GPS on the trucks. We have them on Mi Drive map. Now we get to have a little bit more fun when we point that out to folks, and I think Iain’s point is spot on.
Cranson: And God knows we're still in the middle of a pandemic, and we launched this in the middle of a pandemic. And anything that creates a little bit of a diversion and maybe gives us some laughs is well worth it.
Schirripa: Certainly, a little bit of light humor always helps.
Cranson: So, I’m going to put you on the spot here. Going back to the beginning, we joked about Plowy McPlowface and Sir Salts-A-Lot, and then some of the other names that you rolled out earlier. What's your personal favorite?
Schirripa: You know, people have asked me that, and that isn’t possible. That is not a possible question to answer.
Cranson: Well, which one do you remember really?
Schirripa: Plowthagorean Theorem. That is the one that made me smile the biggest and laugh the hardest, which makes no sense because there’s Gordie Plow, Steve Icerman, Grind Line. There were a handful of Red Wings references that all made my heart a little warm. And I kind of like those, but I don't know what it is about Plowthagorean Theorem. That one just gets me every time.
Cranson: When you're officiating hockey and breaking up a fight, do you just throw out some of those names to, you know, kind of bring the temperature down?
Schirripa: I certainly do have de-escalation techniques I use when I’m officiating ice hockey, but most of them cannot be spoken here on this podcast.
Schirripa: Those are trade secrets that I can't divulge to the general public. [Laughing]
Cranson: All right. Well, thanks, Nick, for what you've done with this. It's been great, I think, for the department and for the state. And there's certainly a safety aspect to it, which is really an imperative for everything. And you and Courtney deserve a lot of credit for running with this, and I think things can only grow from here.
Schirripa: Well, thank you for giving us the rope to play with on this one. We've had a lot of fun, and Courtney certainly deserves a lion's share of the thanks. She has done so much work behind the scenes, and she's probably going to be mad at me for saying all that. But she really is the driving force behind making all this so visible and happen so quickly. It would not have happened without her and her efforts. Again, thank you for giving us the latitude to play with it and have a little bit of fun.
Cranson: Well, I agree. Well said.
Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I would like to thank Randy Debler and Corey Petee for engineering this week's podcast. To subscribe to show notes and more, go to Apple podcasts and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.