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Snow Fences Save Money and Lives

Snow fences keep Interstate 80 in Wyoming clear of snow and ice.

The Challenge

Within 3 months of opening in October 1970, the 124-km (77-mi) stretch of Interstate 80 between Laramie and Walcott Junction, Wyoming, was buried by 5-m (16-ft) snow drifts in 27 places. The road had to be closed for 10 days because of the deep snow and near-zero visibility from snow blown by winds of up to 161 km/h (100 mi/h).

Yet U.S. Route 30, the road Interstate 80 replaced, had rarely been closed because of drifting snow. Route 30 paralleled the Union Pacific railroad tracks, and snow fences protected the tracks—and hence the road—from blowing snow. Not only was I-80 not protected by snow fences, but it also was subject to stronger winds and heavier snowfalls.

Frustrated by the massive drifts on Interstate 80, the Wyoming Department of Transportation (DOT) decided to evaluate whether snow fences would protect the new road. The DOT's pioneering research into snow fences would prove instrumental when the Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP) developed guidelines for the use of snow fences.

Putting the Technology to the Test

In 1971, the Wyoming DOT began constructing snow fences along Interstate 80. Workers installed 18.3 km (11.4 mi) of snow fences to protect the 27 sites where drifting snow had buried the highway the year before.

The following winter showed just how valuable snow fences were. As hoped, the fences prevented massive drifts from forming on the highway.

But the snow fences did more than eliminate drifts. To Wyoming DOT's surprise, the fences also dramatically improved visibility when the wind picked up. This has translated into a sharp reduction in the number of accidents.

The snow fences also help keep the roadway clear of ice. Less snow now blows across the pavement, so the pavement stays warmer, keeping slush and ice from forming.

Spurred by this success, Wyoming DOT has since built about 64 km (40 mi) of snow fences along I-80, and the benefits have been dramatic. By controlling drifts and keeping the pavement warmer, the snow fences help keep the road clear of snow, cutting the DOT's snow and ice removal costs for the highway by 50 percent. The savings over a 10-year period paid for the snow fences.

In addition to saving the DOT money, the snow fences improve safety for travelers. By keeping snow from blowing across the road, the snow fences improve visibility for drivers, cutting the accident rate by 70 percent. And by reducing wind speeds, the snow fences have made Interstate 80 safer for semitrailers and other tall vehicles.

The Wyoming DOT has made snow fences part of its routine operations. More than 900 km (560 mi) of fences now protect roads across the State.

The Benefits

Wyoming DOT reports that by installing snow fences along Interstate 80,

  • Snow removal costs have dropped as much as 50 percent.
  • The accident rate has fallen by 70 percent during snowy, windy conditions.

For More Information

Ken Shultz, Wyoming DOT, 307-777-4051 (fax: 307-777-4765)
Paul Pisano, FHWA, 202-366-1301 (fax: 202-366-8712;

Publication No.: FHWA-SA-96-045 (CS101)

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