A Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office patrol vehicle that responded to a weather-related accident in the Shale Bluffs area of Highway 82 on Christmas Eve was rear-ended by an alleged drunken driver, Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said earlier this week.
Deputy Jeff Lumsden was inside the patrol vehicle and was wearing a safety belt when it was hit, DiSalvo said. Through his rear-view mirror, Lumsden saw the motorist coming toward him and braced for the collision. His only injury was some minor back and neck pain and he is now back on the job, the sheriff said.
“I’m just so happy that Jeff wasn’t hurt,” DiSalvo said. “If he had been out of the car, or not buckled in, there is no telling what might have happened. He was lucky enough to see the car coming and he realized it was not turning or slowing down. He braced himself and was able to absorb the impact.”
The incident occurred at about 9:40 p.m. on Dec. 24. Paul Tefft, 51, of Woody Creek, faces three misdemeanors in connection with the crash: DUI, careless driving and reckless endangerment, according to Undersheriff Rob Ryan.
Damage to the patrol vehicle, a Chevy Tahoe, was minor, the Sheriff’s Office said. Lumsden was able to drive it away and it will be repaired and put back into service. The Toyota 4Runner that Tefft was driving was probably totaled, authorities said.
Lumsden estimates that Tefft was driving between 15 mph and 25 mph when the collision occurred. The deputy had arrived to the Shale Bluffs area, located just west of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, about 90 minutes earlier to assist other deputies and the Colorado State Patrol with a four-vehicle accident initially triggered by snowy weather and icy roads.
Details of that accident, investigated by state police, were not available this week. It started as a single-car accident when a woman lost control on the slippery road and bounced about the highway before coming to a stop in the left lane of the westbound side of the highway. Her accident led to three other vehicles — one of them a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus with 30 passengers — hitting each other to varying degrees, authorities said.
One person — not a bus passenger — was moderately injured with a neck injury and taken to Aspen Valley Hospital for treatment, Lumsden said.
Lumsden said he was in the Holland Hills area when the dispatcher’s call came about the Shale Bluffs accident just after 7:30 p.m. He arrived and took the rear, parking in the left lane, to steer downvalley motorists over to the right lane as the accident was being investigated and cleared. All of his emergency lights were on as well as an “arrow stick,” the yellow blinking light that directs motorists to the right or the left.
A 32-year department veteran, Lumsden sat in his patrol car, secured by the seat belt. Occasionally he would look back into his rear-view mirror to make sure that vehicles were moving safely into the right lane. The cars were coming in clusters after passing through the nearest set of traffic lights.
As the accident scene ahead of him was nearly cleared, he looked back again and could tell that a vehicle was not slowing down or moving into the right lane.
“I think he had lost all of his depth perception,” Lumsden said. “I looked and said, ‘This guy isn’t slowing down.’ I braced my head into the head rest. He hit me around the trailer hitch, and mangled the back door pretty good. As far as I can tell, he never went for the brake. I think we determined that there was no skid [mark] at all.”
DiSalvo and Ryan said the collision points to the dangers that patrol officers face when dealing with accidents and traffic control.
“This does happen when you work the highway,” Ryan said. “Buckled in your car could be the safest place to be.”
And if officers are working outside of their vehicle on a busy highway, they are taught to always identify some type of escape route in case a vehicle strays toward them.
“It’s one of the first things you teach everybody,” Ryan said.
DiSalvo wanted to remind motorists that it’s their duty to obey the directions of emergency personnel when coming upon an accident scene.
“Give a wide berth to the patrol vehicle,” he said.
Lumsden said that darkness and poor weather conditions often play a role in highway accidents, and motorists should be cognizant before venturing out at certain times of night.
He also pointed out that Tefft was the only motorist unable to negotiate around him as he was stationed at the rear of the Christmas Eve accident scene.
“If there was one contributing factor I’d have to say it was [alcohol],” Lumsden said.