Crashes, delays decline in Glenwood Canyon
In the 1970s, the highway through Glenwood Canyon, with its sharp curves, narrow road and unpredictable weather conditions, was one of the most dangerous roads in the state.Today, after a major renovation in 1992 that finished the last part of the freeway, the interstate, in some experts eyes, has become a model for traffic safety and environmental preservation. Since 1992, average annual accidents in the canyon have decreased nearly 40 percent, according to Colorado Department of Transportation crash data.”The canyon right now is an example of the way to do safety for traffic engineering,” said Cpt. Barry Bratt of the Colorado State Patrol.During the overhaul of the old Route 6, the two-lane highway was made into four lanes by splitting and elevating one road on top of the other. The 12.5 mile stretch through the limestone and granite canyon has 40 bridges, four rest areas, a recreation path and launches for boats and kayaks. The engineers also widened the road, lowered the speed limit and started an extensive maintenance and surveillance program. The Colorado Department of Transportation’s Hanging Lake Tunnel traffic control center, which sits midway through the 12.5-mile route, employs an incident detection and traffic management system that tracks every vehicle using sensors and cameras.In 1996, the center installed message signs throughout the canyon that notify motorists of their speed, in addition to lane closures and other road conditions. One sign in the canyon informs motorists of their speed coming into a sharp curve with a lower speed limit. Average speeds at that particular curve have since dropped from 66 mph to 61 mph, according to the department of transportation. The control center now coordinates 72 message signs in western and southern Colorado.”Making the motorists better informed has made it more safe,” said Cathy DeJulio, senior supervisor for the Hanging Lake Tunnel control center.
In 1979, before construction began in the canyon, 121 accidents occurred in one year, according to the department of transportation. From the three-year period of 1992 to 1994, 159 crashes took place with one fatality, and from 1999 to 2001, 174 total crashes occurred with three fatalities, data indicate. The decrease in accidents have occurred even with a boom in population and travel through the canyon. From 1992 to 1994, the average daily traffic through the canyon was 10,859 vehicles, and the average daily traffic rate from 1999 to 2001 was 14,222, according to the department of transportation. An estimated 50 percent increase in corridor traffic by 2015 will bring even more people through the canyon. Although fatalities rose in the past decade, the rate is lower than the state average. In addition, the weighted hazard index, or WHI, which calculates average accident rates, also dropped. A three-year average, the WHI compares crash data in stretches of road against other sections with similar characteristics in the state – matching apples to apples, said Jim Nall, a state traffic and safety engineer for Region 3, which includes Glenwood Canyon.Stacked against other mountainous, curvy roads, the WHI for Glenwood Canyon from 1999 to 2001 is -0.79, which means fewer accidents occur in the canyon than on similar highways in Colorado.”I expect everything to be right around zero, with the work that’s been done in Glenwood Canyon and also the maintenance effort that goes into that, a critical factor of accident reductions,” Nall said.Transportation crews work year-round to maintain road conditions, particularly during winter months, when the highway is treated with magnesium chloride to cut down on ice. From 1997 to 2004, Glenwood Canyon has been closed 85 times, an average of 12 a year. On average, three to four closures are due to rock or mudslides.
Carla Budd, who lives in New Castle and drives daily to Eagle through the canyon, said in all her years of driving the roadway, she’s experienced a delay only twice.”The difference from a safety standpoint is night and day,” said Budd, the director of human resources for Eagle County. “The old road was narrow, you couldn’t pass, trucks going through – it was scary when it was two-lane. Now it’s wide and they keep it well-maintained.”Jerry Vaughn, a truck driver for Harry’s Heavy Haulers in Rifle, has driven through Glenwood Canyon before and after reconstruction in his 21 years with the company, and said it’s definitely safer now. With the four lanes, he doesn’t have to worry about people swerving to miss rocks, and if wildlife runs into the road there’s more room to negotiate, he said.”They did a real nice job building it,” Vaughn said. “It’s not like a sore thumb sticking out there. It’s blending in real nice.”Engineers constructed the road with environmental sensitivity in mind, preserving the views of the 3,000-foot tall stone structures that line the roadway. Construction was designed to minimize impact on the environment, and following the project a large revegetation effort reseeded 150,000 native plants to the area.
In the early 1900s, a crude dirt road wound through the canyon, and was paved to make a two-lane highway, U.S. 6, in the 1930s. U.S. 6 provided the primary link between Denver and states to the west for the next 60 years.A citizen’s advisory committee pushed the idea of a reconstruction in the 1970s, and the Glenwood Canyon reconstruction project broke ground in 1981. A year after its completion in 1992, the renovation won the 1993 Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers.But keeping motorists secure still presents roadblocks for engineers and transportation officials. For instance, because of the physical confinements of the highway and canyon walls, drivers have little room to maneuver in case of an emergency.”The challenge we have in the canyon is if something happens there, trying to get traffic in or out,” Bratt of the State Patrol said. DeJulio also mentioned the lack of extra space.”We have really limited access for when vehicles break down because shoulders are narrower than normal. That does put motorists at risk.”And although the Glenwood Canyon portion of I-70 has the lowest permanent speed limit of any section of roadway in the state, drivers still tend to hit the pedal when driving though, DeJulio said.”Everybody speeds in that canyon,” she said. “The posted limit’s 50 mph, but everybody does 65.”