Can a hashtag make driving Vail Pass more safe during the winter months?
• Stick a quarter into your tire tread, with George Washington’s head down. If the tread covers any part of his head, you’re fine.
• Estimates indicate that Colorado loses about $1 million in economic activity for every hour Interstate 70 is closed.
• There were 91 full closures of I-70 over Vail Pass in 2017. Many of those were relatively short “safety closures.”
• Snow tires are expensive. Snow sock devices can provide temporary traction in inclement weather.
EAGLE COUNTY — Government officials can’t say it this way, but bald tires suck. That’s the thrust of a new campaign aimed at educating those who drive Interstate 70 in the winter.
The I-70 Coalition — a group of local governments and businesses — along with the Colorado Public Interest Research Group last week launched the #BaldTiresSuck public information campaign to encourage motorists to pay more attention to the equipment they use to come up for their winter adventures.
The idea is that bald or inadequate tires are a safety hazard in snowy or icy conditions. And, in this case, “bald” doesn’t necessarily mean that all the tread on a tire has worn off. In fact, just minimal tread can be hazardous to the safety of drivers and those around them.
The safe legal minimum in Colorado is about 1/16th of an inch. Most of us don’t have tread depth gauges, so the simple way to explain that depth uses a quarter and George Washington’s head. Stick a quarter, head down, into a tire’s tread. If the tread covers any part of Washington’s head, the tires are legally safe.
Two different things
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But “legally safe” and “safe” are two different things. In fact, almost all vehicles will be safer to drive with dedicated winter tires.
Dedicated winter tires can be expensive. A set of four winter tires for a midsized or large vehicle can easily cost several hundred dollars.
But I-70 Coalition Director Margaret Bowes said it can be sobering to compare the cost of a set of tires with the cost of a road-closing accident.
“The average cost of a tow is about $200,” just to pull a car back on the road, Bowes said. In addition, if a vehicle with inadequate tires ends up closing a lane of traffic, the maximum fine is $650.
Bowes said there are options for those who don’t want to spend the needed money on good winter tires.
The Colorado Department of Transportation’s Bustang bus service runs into the mountains from the Denver metro area. Bowes also said that car pooling is a good option
In the case of Vail Pass, a relatively narrow stretch of interstate, closing one lane actually means closing both lanes, even in the event of a no-injury accident. The Colorado State Patrol will close both lanes of the highway so emergency responders can work more safely.
Working accident scenes can be dangerous, especially in the winter. Local fire departments have all had trucks seriously damaged by motorists driving through accident zones.
Vail’s fire department responds to a lot of accidents on the pass. Vail Fire Chief Mark Novak said this winter has been “about average” in terms of how often crews are called to accident scenes.
But, he added, the Colorado Department of Transportation a few years ago started closing the highway for shorter periods in order to stay ahead of snowfall before the combination of weather and traffic cause longer delays.
Transportation department spokeswoman Tracy Trulove said the safety closure policy has led to more road closures — 91 in 2017. But, she added, those closures are relatively short.
“People have forgotten about the years when we didn’t do (safety closures),” Trulove said. “Sometimes we’d lose the road for 24 hours.”
Besides inadequate tires, Novak said speed is also a frequent factor in winter traffic accidents.
Combining dry-road speed with tires that don’t work well in winter conditions is a recipe for accidents.
That sometimes happens when people are driving rented cars. Those vehicles are usually sent out with factory-standard tires, not snow tires.
Skyler McKinley, of Colorado AAA, said there’s nothing in state statute that requires rental companies to put snow tires on rented vehicles. And the cost to those companies would be substantial.
Bald tires suck
While state officials have worked on educational campaigns for the past few years, including winter driving tips on the CDOT website, Trulove said the #BaldTiresSuck campaign might bring something new to the effort.
In addition to social and traditional media, and a somewhat edgier message — state employees can’t really say “suck” in public information — Bowes said the campaign also has bumper stickers for those who want them.
With all that in mind, Trulove has a realistic attitude toward all the education efforts.
“We’re going to continuously have a challenge with people who aren’t prepared,” she said. “A lot of people still seem to choose to roll the dice.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 970-748-2930.