With a white helmet and ash-gray beard, Caltrans Superintendent Dave Wood exudes old-fashioned charm from his post at the snowy summit of Donner Pass. But his favored method of communicating with drivers is decidedly modern.
He’s the voice behind regular mountain traffic updates dispatched on Twitter by Caltrans, where Wood provides a close-up look at the nasty conditions that can snarl Interstate 80 in an instant. He’s often funny, and always himself.
“If you drive your car on the roof, we can’t keep this road open. Please slow down,” he implored in a video post week.
Wood, 50, is a 19-year Caltrans veteran who leads crews working around the clock to keep traffic moving over one of the country’s busiest mountain passes. It’s his third winter on the mountain pass. By far, it’s the most severe.
In one storm this winter, Wood’s teams saw 58 inches of snow fall in 24 hours.
“That’s five feet of snow in 24 hours,” he stressed.
His Twitter reports play a role in his traffic management by letting drivers know when it’s unsafe to try the highway, or calming them when they’re stuck at a standstill.
On Feb. 21, he reported, “We’ve had a number of vehicles collide. We’re trying to to get that sorted out. The conditions are very fierce, if you don’t need to come up here today please don’t.”
Wood tends to open his videos with a selfie-style image of himself, and he then turns around so viewers can see the scene. Snow banks pile up along the roadside. When traffic moves, viewers can hear the whoosh of speeding cars.
Those images, he says, let drivers empathize with crews they might otherwise blame for traffic delays.
“The people who work on Donner Pass, the men and women are tremendously dedicated. They sacrifice a tremendous amount of their time to keep this road open and then people spit on them and throw trash on them,” Wood said.
He calls the job the “World Series of snow removal” because it calls on so many people to perform at the top of their game. When storms fall, his crews can swell to as many as 200 workers.
Caltrans crews on the pass have to keep the road open for mountaintop residents and buses ferrying kids to school. Then there are the winter tourists, heading to ski slopes. A long delay could crimp food deliveries from California ports to cities as far away as Denver.
He also intervened earlier this month when a military convoy tried to take a frontage road parallel to the highway.
“I wouldn’t take that road with my four-wheel drive truck with chains on it,” he told the troops.
He continued, “Unless you want get on the cover of Stars and Stripes (the military newspaper), you need to back up.”
“The thing is it never stops being an interstate,” he said. “Interstates are faster. They’re straighter. People are not intending to stop and they don’t want to. You have to deal with it,” he said.
People who follow Caltrans updates on Twitter have become fans of Wood’s plainspoken updates.
“Give this man and his majestic facial hair their own account,” one resident wrote after one of Wood’s updates this month.
“Your superintendent rocks,” another wrote.
Wood gets a kick out of the feedback. “If they recognize the mustache, the hat and the information, they’re going to trust me,” he laughed.