Roads getting rougher
Police and firefighters who deal with car wrecks say the changing of the seasons can be the most treacherous time of the year on mountain roads. When rain turns to snow and the air temperature suddenly slips below freezing, roads can become slick, frozen pavement before a driver has time to adjust, Vail Fire Chief John Gulick says.
“People are still driving like it’s Southern California, and they’re in a hurry to get somewhere, when the law says you’re supposed to drive a speed based on what the conditions are,” Gulick says. “It’s best to slow down and be on the cautious side because it’s scary and it’s dangerous.”
When the weather starts to turn wintry in September and October, many motorists are still used to higher-speed summer driving, Gulick says.
“It’s particularly dangerous as the weather turns and people still have summer tires on and still have confidence in their SUVs and four-wheel-drive, but that’s not going to cut it,” Gulick says. “Doing 65 or 70 mph and coming into a curve that’s in the shade, you’re going to lose it.”
The Colorado Department of Transportation has already enforced chain laws on Vail Pass several times this season. There also were several wrecks – though no serious injuries – on Vail Pass during last week’s cold, wet weather.
A woman whose car rolled over and crashed on the Vail side of the pass one night earlier this month wasn’t seriously injured, Colorado State Patrol Cpl. Larry Graves says.
The woman was wearing her seat-belt, Graves says.
“When I came down the pass that night, it was wet. The temperature dropped really quickly and all the water turned to ice,” Graves says. “When the snow flies for the first time it starts to gets hectic.”
Gulick says the Vail Fire Department can charge for wrecks it deals with on Vail Pass because that stretch of Interstate 70 is outside of its jurisdiction.
Many drivers think four-wheel drive will prevent them from getting into accidents or sliding on ice. While four-wheel drive provides more stability, it won’t help a driver spinning out regain control, police say.
And if the roads are bad enough, drivers can get a ticket for driving too fast for conditions – even if they’re driving below the speed limit – police say.
Some of the most dangerous spots on I-70 are the sharp curve at Dowd Junction at the Minturn interchange and the long bends east and west of Wolcott. Another dangerous spot is on U.S. Highway 6 just west of Avon, where the road climbs underneath the shadowy cliff face, police say.
“People are still used to doing the speed limit on the roadway. They don’t realize the road’s wet, but in a second all the water turns to ice,” Graves says. “People have to get into a winter-driving mode. They have to slow down and make sure they’ve got their seat belts on.”
Simply driving in the winter can have its perils. Getting caught in a major traffic jam or breaking down can leave motorists stranded in the cold, police say.
Police recommend drivers carry extra blankets, a warm coat, a good pair of boots and gloves in their cars in case they have walk or wait in their cars for help during a snowstorm.
Other supplies drivers are urged to store in their cars are a shovel to dig out of snowbanks, road flares, at least a gallon of windshield wiper fluid, drinking water and some type of non-perishable food, such as candy bars or granola bars.
Finally, drivers are urged to dress warm when driving during the winter. Police says they’ve found drivers in the dead of winter wearing only a pair of shorts.
“Early and late season conditions seem to be worse because it’s wetter. Mid-season it stays colder,” says Fred Morrison, the operations manager for the Eagle County Ambulance District.
Ambulances have made several trips up the pass on I-70 so far this season, but there haven’t been any serious injuries, Morrison says.
“We’ve been going up there on the snow days,” he says. “Nothing stands out in my mind as serious. It’s just been a series of fender-benders so far.”
Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.