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State needs to take serious steps to mitigate the ‘Idiot Factor’ on I-70

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March 17, 2014, 9:22 am
I-70 traffic

I-70 Coalition photo

Interstate 70 between Denver and Vail has become virtually unusable during the winter months if there’s even the slightest precipitation on the road – and it’s no longer just a weekend phenomenon.

Although Saturday was another prime example of just how gridlocked I-70 has become on winter weekends, underscoring the need for drastic changes in how Colorado’s key east-west transit corridor is managed.

But unnecessary and inexplicably lengthy closures now seem to occur every day of the week, including the morning of Friday, March 7, when another small amount of new snow shut down the westbound Eisenhower Tunnel approaches.

Then westbound I-70 was closed again this past Saturday for long stretches both in the morning and late afternoon/early evening, and Vail reported a mere two inches of new snow – the very definition of dust on crust skiing.

If you were one of the “lucky” snow riders who got through before the morning closure – reportedly caused by yet another jackknifed semi – you were treated to very little new snow on top of a seriously firm, sunbaked base.

It’s one thing to brave insane traffic for deep powder skiing, quite another to face hours trapped on the interstate for marginal conditions. But a snowstorm that’s hardly worth the effort for snow riders is all it takes to shut down the highway for hours these days, even during the week.

This has been one of the worst seasons ever for closures on I-70 in the more than two decades I’ve lived in Eagle County, and the skier numbers aren’t that much higher than they used to be back in the 1990s.

What’s new is what I call the “Idiot Factor.”

There’s a deadly combination of disrespect and cluelessness about mountain driving conditions, leading to hundreds of motorists who don’t have the skills or the equipment (four-wheel drive, proper snow tires, tire chains) to be heading over 10,000-foot mountain passes like the Eisenhower Tunnel and Vail Pass during any kind of snow event, no matter how mundane.

This includes commercial vehicles from semis driven by warm-weather truckers willing to roll the dice and risk a fine by driving unchained to bus drivers who should be part of the solution (getting cars off the road) but instead become a major part of the problem by skidding out on steep inclines.

And then there are the countless drivers of private vehicles who should not even be allowed up the passes in certain conditions. They don’t know how to drive in snow, how to react once they lose traction and what do when their bald-tired sedan built for the flatlands goes sideways.

Put them all together on a busy holiday weekend, add just a little bit of ice and snow, and it’s all over. The interstate will shut down for three, four, even five hours at a stretch. Which brings me to the extremely hardworking and conscientious first responders who do an incredible job of mopping up the mess but need to be more focused on prevention.

Let’s eliminate the “Idiot Factor” in the first place by setting up traction checks for all vehicles and not allow them up the passes in any kind snow. Sell them chains, charge them to put them on, and then force them to follow a pilot car at 45 mph over the pass.

Even in my four-wheel-drive SUV with snow tires I’d rather creep along at that speed and eventually make it in three hours than be able to do 60 until some idiot crashes and everything’s shut down for the day.

Because besides not having the right equipment, the I-70 idiots also drive way too fast for the conditions, and then inevitably someone decides they like the left lane even though they’re going 40 – often a trucker who shouldn’t be passing at all – and that’s all it takes to clog everything up and potentially shut everything down.

It used to be a pretty solid rule that if you got on the road before noon on Sunday you could get to Denver no problem, no matter the weather, but that’s no longer true. Last month on Feb. 9 we tried to go down to a Denver event and hit the road at 10 a.m. in Eagle.

Five hours later we got to Silverthorne, a distance of 60 miles. We wound up going to a movie to wait it out, but when we came out of the theaters the highway was still closed. We drove back to Eagle, our trip to the city destroyed by terrible management of the highway.

It took some people eight hours to navigate the 100 miles between Vail and Denver that day – a major public safety and economic concern that has to be addressed next ski season.

There’s also a lack of urgency in clearing the idiots out of the way. Just like an accident alert in the city, investigation should be low-priority. Just have people exchange insurance info and drag the cars to the shoulder if they’re broken down.

Courtesy patrols can then give drivers a ride to somewhere warm and they can return the next day with a tow truck. Price you pay for being unprepared.

According to a Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) press release after that debacle on Feb. 9, “CDOT’s Heavy Tow program towed 11 commercial vehicles that lost traction on the steep approach to Eisenhower Tunnel, three of which did not employ chains as required by law.”

Heavy fines were levied, no doubt, but they should never have been allowed up the passes in the first place. Clearly the fines are not a deterrent. In fact, I don’t care how strong the trucking lobby is, Sundays during the winter need to be a day of rest. Head up to I-80 or down to I-40 if you really have to get through, but don’t try I-70 in a snowstorm on a Sunday afternoon.

Ditto idiots in private vehicles.

According to the same CDOT release, “On Sunday, Feb. 9, CDOT’s Courtesy Patrol program relocated 22 vehicles on eastbound I-70 between Silverthorne and Eisenhower Tunnel. Of the 22 vehicles, 19 had bald tires and 18 had in-state plates. The 22 were only a small fraction of the spun-out vehicles that needed assistance, which contributed to the heavy congestion and delayed commute for motorists last Sunday.”

For the record, I never spun out once that day. I had the right car, the right tires, but I was surrounded by the “Idiot Factor.” And I include myself for even being there and trying to go to Denver to spend my money at some city events and restaurants. This “idiot” will never try that again, and increasingly I’m questioning heading down on weekdays as well, even in the summer.

Ridiculous construction projects that are merely slapping on a Band-Aid, like the current Twin Tunnels “widening” that’s not even adding another lane, have made summer travel a joke as well. And the same idiots in the winter seems to be just as capable of crashing on dry pavement too.

But I digress. This is a major economic issue, and we need to start treating it that way (more on that in future blog posts) by putting some serious prohibitions in place to mitigate the “Idiot Factor.” Here’s a list of suggestions from that same CDOT release. I say “yes, all of the above” to the entire list. Time to take this matter far more seriously than we currently do.

Let me know your thoughts:

•      Improve passenger vehicle traction through possible sale of chains and alternative traction devices at chain stations and on ramps at Silverthorne, Frisco Copper Mountain, and Vail.

•      Schedule more CDOT snow plow crews to supplement the existing crews in Summit County and Clear Creek County.

•      Work with the ski resorts and car rental companies to ensure that passenger vehicle traction devices are available for purchase by their customers and the customers are aware of their availability.

•      Work with Colorado State Patrol to conduct passenger vehicle traction checks at on ramps to eastbound I-70 at Silverthorne, Frisco, Copper Mountain, and Vail.

•      Implement traffic control at ski resorts to manage volume prior to vehicles leaving the resort to reduce the delays, stranded vehicles, accidents and spin outs on routes to I-70.

•      When conditions require, eliminate eastbound hazmat carrier escorts through Eisenhower Tunnel, when Loveland Pass is closed, beginning at 9AM and resuming when delays have subsided.

•      When conditions require, close eastbound I-70 to commercial motor vehicles at Dotsero when road conditions and traffic volumes are such that a public safety emergency is likely and imminent.

•      Expand CDOT’s I-70 West Courtesy Patrol to aid and assist stranded motorists with disabled vehicles.

•      Continue tunnel safety metering at Eisenhower/Johnson tunnels to ensure tunnel is safe for emergency vehicles.

•      When necessary, escort traffic from Silverthorne to Georgetown to ensure safe driving speeds on the route and when exiting Eisenhower Tunnel.

•      Continue to promote traveler information as well as encourage travelers to Change their Peak Time and take advantage of deals available at GoI70.com.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Colorado Times Recorder, the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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