Sun can derail Vail Valley drivers |

Sun can derail Vail Valley drivers

Dustin Racioppi
Vail Valley, CO Colorado

VAIL VALLEY, Colorado “-With close to 300 days of sunshine a year, natives or those who’ve lived in Colorado’s Vail Valley a few years barely notice the subtle shift going on overhead in the fall and winter, when the earth pulls closer to the sun and suddenly, things are a little brighter.

That is, they rarely notice until they drive off the side of the road or rear-end another car on the highway because they can barely see through the glare in front of them.

That’s the observation Eagle River Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Mikel Kerst made several weeks ago. He said he’d respond to accidents early in the fall and hear from people involved in the accident that the sun was in their eyes. But, he said, people don’t really notice it until it’s too late.

Like most other things out on the road, that in turn creates problems for emergency responders, said Colorado State Patrol spokesman Sgt. Marshall Schwarz.

“I don’t think it’s a factor, really. I think it’s a lack of people paying attention to their surroundings,” Schwarz said.

Colorado Climate Center Research Associate Wendy Ryan said the sun hovering just over the mountains is a factor, albeit an often-overlooked one.

“In the fall the sun angle starts to change, so people need to adjust,” she said. “Even though we have lower incoming solar radiation in the winter due to the shorter day length, the angle of the sun and the sun reflecting off of snow are the main causes of trouble for drivers.”

Vail resident Lesley Halstead learned first-hand a long time ago she has to be more careful on bright days, and especially in this area. When she was 16, she hit another car in a parking lot in Virginia. The reason was obvious, she said.

“It was all because of the sun,” she said. “This guy was pulling out. I honestly couldn’t see him.”

Then she came to Fort Collins for college. The sun was brighter than it ever had been in Virginia. She adjusted to it, then moved to Vail last year for another surprise.

“It’s different up here than it is in Fort Collins,” she said. “I didn’t realize the intensity until I got up here. I’m just extra cautious.”

And as Ryan said, the brightness can be particularly worse when there’s snow on the ground, which could make for a dangerous concoction. But lately, even without much snow at all, Daniels said the air has been drier than usual, which could explain Kerst’s observation.

“Possibly the reason it seems brighter recently is the air mass that has hovered over the mountains, there’s no water vapor or dust in the atmosphere to diffuse the sunlight,” Daniels said.

Halstead agreed its been brighter than usual lately, even when the sun isn’t visible.

“It’s really bright this time of year, especially when the sun is out,” she said. “It’s unbearable.”

There’s no solid data from meteorologists, the fire protection district or state patrol to substantiate that the sun is wreaking havoc on motorists in the fall and winter, but Schwarz believes one day there will.

“We’re tracking more and more each year,” he said. “It’s coming, we’re just not there yet. Check back in five years, I’m sure we’ll have something.”

Until then, a word of caution from Halstead, who at times drives down the highway into the sun, pulls down the visor, does the saluting hand-over-the-eye tactic and, when that doesn’t work, she recalls that day 15 years earlier in a Virginia parking lot.

“You need your visor, you need your hands and you need your sunglasses,” she said.

Dustin Racioppi can be reached at (970)748-2936 or

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