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Highway notorious

Julie Imada-Howard
Special to the Daily/Scott MillerInterstate 70's wide curves through Wolcott seem to be a magnet for accidents. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, the primary cause of accidents in this stretch of highway is excessive speed for the conditions.
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Between mile markers 157 and 154, the wide curves through Wolcott seem to be a magnet for accidents, even in dry conditions.

Many downvalley residents commute every day through Wolcott to upvalley jobs and have often seen first-hand the danger of I-70 at Wolcott.

“The weather completely changes (at Wolcott). It’s dangerous as heck,” says Eagle resident Mike Morrissey, who works at Sweet Basil restaurant in Vail. “So many nights the road goes from dry to black ice. Ten miles (an hour) faster and you could be in trouble.”

Morrissey has made it a habit to slow down through that section and he and his wife, who also commutes, remind each other daily to be careful when driving through the Wolcott area.

Other commuters have also made changes in their driving habits when it comes to Wolcott. Jon Stavney has been commuting upvalley for six years, and while he has not been in an accident at Wolcott, he has seen many one-car accidents there and skid marks running off of the road during the early morning hours.

“Unseasoned drivers may not see the road as hazardous,” says Stavney, adding that he is often passed by other cars at the curves in question. Stavney thinks a change in the speed limit during winter months versus summer months could be a solution to the problem, although he added he would probably be the first to get a ticket for exceeding a lower speed limit.

“The turns out there are hazardous,” says Jim Lair, director of ECO Transit, the Eagle County’s bus service.

Lair says ECO trains its drivers to drive according to road conditions, with emphasis on safety first, service and lastly, the schedule.

While the Wolcott curves snare plenty of drivers, other notorious trouble spots in Eagle County include Vail Pass, Dowd Junction, the mouth of Glenwood Canyon, Highway 131 to State Bridge and the “twin bridges” east of Eagle, between mile markers 148 and 154.

Speed the key to avoiding accidents

The speed limit on I-70 in most places in Eagle County 75 mph, with reductions in the speed limit through the curves at Wolcott.

“The road isn’t dangerous. People need to slow down and drive for the road conditions,” says Keith Powers, resident engineer for the Colorado Department of Transportation. “We can lower the speed limit, but people won’t drive it. Excessive speed is a prevalent problem throughout the valley.”

According to CDOT statistics, during inclement weather drivers involved in accidents at Wolcott in 2001 all were driving under the posted speed limit. There were 19 accidents between mile markers 155 and 156 in 2001. Of those, 12 occurred during snowy or wet weather. Five occurred when the road was dry. The average speed of the vehicles involved in inclement weather accidents was 60.8 mph. The average speed of vehicles involved in dry road accidents was 67.8 mph. The posted speed though the curves is 60 mph.

Given the statistics and the evidence on the roads, the Colorado State Patrol, CDOT and local emergency agencies say, the primary cause of accidents at Wolcott is excessive speed for the conditions.

“We’ll be running code with flashing lights and people are still passing us,” says Greater Eagle Fire District Chief Jon Asper.

According to the State Patrol, though, slowing down a little is not enough if the roads are covered in snow or ice and visibility is impaired.

“Just because the speed limit is posted, it doesn’t mean it is safe to operate at that speed,” says State Patrol trooper Brian Koch.

Koch recommends drivers decrease their chances of an accident by reducing their speed by as much 20 mph, depending on road and weather conditions. The patrol also tries to decrease accidents by increasing patrol car visibility, but like all emergency agencies, limited manpower is a factor in enforcing the speed limit.

CDOT rates each section of the interstate according to the engineering of the roadway and the expected chance of accidents and compares it to a state average. Based on those calculations, CDOT has given the Wolcott section of the interstate a higher hazard and expected accident rating than other sections of the highway.

“I don’t think the speed limit needs to be changed. That turn is not engineered for 75,” says Morrissey.

Working on safety

CDOT has several plans in the works to make the Wolcott section of I-70 safer.

“We need to use the message boards more effectively. We are working on accident scene management and traffic control,” says CDOT Highway Maintenance Supervisor Paul DeJulio.

DeJulio and his crew also plan to target certain problems spots at the Wolcott turns with multiple applications of liquid de-icer during the winter, as well as overlapping snowplows and snow removal in those areas.

Incident management when an accident occurs is a problem for first responders who control traffic around the scene. When the roads are icy and drivers aren’t paying attention, emergency workers put themselves in real danger.

Chris Blankenship, an Eagle firefighter recalls seeing a Saab spinning toward rescue workers who were responding to a semi-truck accident in March.

“It stopped about 20 feet away from us,” Blankenship says.

“We have had so many near misses with officers and emergency workers almost getting hit at an accident scene, adds Lyn Morgan, general manager for the Eagle County Ambulance District, which serves the Wolcott area. “Last year we had an ambulance almost destroyed when a man came around a corner and ran into the back at 50 to 60 mph. The crew was lucky they were out of the ambulance.”

Fire trucks, sheriff’s vehicles and Colorado State Patrol cars have also been damaged by secondary accidents while working accidents scenes in the past .

Two years ago, CDOT recognized the problems with accidents at Wolcott and made improvements. New guard rails also were installed.

“The shaded areas with the curves will always be dangerous. That’s just the nature of that roadway,” says DeJulio.

Tips for safe winter driving:

– Be prepared for delays and pack safety kits, blankets, and water in case of emergency. If there is bad weather, leave for your destination earlier than normal.

– Slow down. Certain stretches of road are more dangerous than others and driving the speed limit may not be driving at a safe speed for the road conditions. Slowing down by 10 to 20 mph during bad road conditions can make a huge difference.

– Be courteous. Everyone has to get somewhere, but everyone wants to get there safely. Be aware of and courteous to other drivers on the road.

– Have proper tires for winter weather.

– Always wear a seat belt and buckle up children in car seats or booster seats. The state patrol has a zero tolerance policy regarding children not properly restrained in cars. A ticket will be issued if a child is not in a restraining system.

– Don’t drink and drive.

– Source: Colorado State Patrol

This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.


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