Smarter drivers, better systems aid I-70 safety | VailDaily.com

Smarter drivers, better systems aid I-70 safety

EAGLE COUNTY — The winter of 2013-14 was a bad one for weekend traffic on Interstate 70, partly due to weather and partly because the Colorado Department of Transportation needed to adjust the way it dealt with traffic during busy ski weekends. We can't do much about the weather, but last winter saw improvements in human responses to bad days.

In the wake of that bad season two winters ago — and loud complaints from town councils, chambers of commerce and, of course, drivers stuck in traffic — state transportation officials in 2014 put together a long list of new tactics to help winter weekenders get home safely and with fewer delays. The department Monday released a report on those tactics, and, it seems, some positive steps were made.

Cartoonist Walt Kelly, who penned the phrase, "We have met the enemy and he is us," would have recognized a significant part of the problem two winters ago. During the "perfect storm" weekend of Jan. 29, 2014, the majority of drivers who slid off the roads or couldn't get re-started on gridlocked climbs were driving on tires unsuited for the job.

TARGETED CAMPAIGNS

That fact led transportation officials to launch a campaign to get motorists to have their tires checked. The education effort also included campaigns about how to drive around snowplows and continued the state's Change Your Peak Drive program, an attempt to get drivers to spread out the times they travel east on busy weekends.

The department's report shows good progress on that front. A survey by National Research Center, a research company hired by the transportation department, shows that about 75 percent of respondents had their tires checked. Nearly half bought new tires because of it.

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In addition, more than 60 percent of survey respondents said they'd learned more about driving safely near snowplows. A similar number said they drove to the mountains with family or friends, reducing the number of cars on the road.

I-70 COALITION

Margaret Bowes is the director of the I-70 Coalition, a group of local governments along the highway corridor working to ease congestion along the road.

In addition to the state's website and mobile apps, the I-70 Coalition has its own website — http://www.goi70.com — that includes real-time traffic forecasts. The site also includes a section where businesses can, at no charge, post deals that encourage motorists to stay in the mountains into the early evenings on go-home days.

Bowes said motorists seem to want that information. The group's website saw an increase of more than 20 percent in new users, and Bowes said the site's page views more than doubled. The biggest jump in traffic came on the travel forecast page.

MORE PLOWS, ESCORTS

Beyond education, transportation officials also used last winter to launch about $8 million worth of new strategies and tactics, including adding snowplow drivers and using snowplow escorts on the approach to the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel.

Local Realtor Craig Denton makes frequent trips to the Denver area for family visits. The snowplow escorts seem useful, but, for a longtime mountain driver, "they don't go fast enough," Denton said.

Besides putting more plows on the road, state officials installed metering lights at eastbound on-ramps in Summit County to better spread out merging traffic.

The combination of education and investment seems to have paid off. The I-70 corridor last winter saw fewer fatal or injury accidents, fewer "unplanned closures" and fewer delays of 75 minutes or more.

Of course, last winter didn't have as many monstrous weekend storms as the winter of 2013-14. But department of transportation communications director Amy Ford said in an email that there were actually more weekend storms this past winter.

Bowes said the lack of monster storms was actually a good thing.

"It was a great dry run of the operations plan," Bowes said. "If we have bigger snow events next winter we'll be ready to go. But we're very pleased they've invested more in staff, operations and maintenance."

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com and @scottnmiller.

by the numbers

$1 billion: Annual cost of Interstate 70 congestion to the state’s economy.

$8 million: Cost of new winter tactics used by the Colorado Department of Transportation.

35 percent: Reduction in injury and fatal accidents from the winter of 2013-14.

16 percent: Reduction in “unplanned closures” from the winter of 2013-14.