Regional: Unprepared drivers among Interstate 70 problems?
EAGLE COUNTY — Who caused the closures on Interstate 70 that made traveling on the mountain corridor last winter a nightmare? It seems to depend on who you ask.
Some angry drivers might say the Colorado Department of Transportation, while others will say out-of-towners and semi-truck drivers, and others still will insist it’s Colorado locals.
Officials and lawmakers are trying to answer that question as they look to ease congestion and accidents on the stretch between Denver and Vail. Eagle County businesses are especially eager for solutions before the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships.
At a recent meeting hosted by the Colorado Lodging and Hotel Association, state lawmakers such as representatives Diane Mitsch Bush and Millie Hamner, Republican nominee for governor Bob Beauprez and officials from Vail Resorts, Colorado Mountain Express and Colorado Ski Country discussed possible solutions for the too frequent jam-ups. The Colorado Department of Transportation outlined a number of improvements they plan to make, which include $6 million in operation improvements, more plow drivers for busy times, and metering trouble spots on the passes. Read more about CDOT’s winter plan at http://www.vaildaily.com/news/12870089-113/vail-transportation-department-state.
Department of Transportation research showed that road closures on I-70 usually weren’t due to mandatory closures, but accidents, mostly by vehicles that didn’t have snow tires or four-wheel drive. Officials cited a particularly infamous incident on Feb. 9, when a combination of 10 inches of snow and a number of pile-ups made drive times from Vail to Denver upwards of eight hours.
PENALTIES FOR BALD TIRES?
Of the 22 passenger vehicles that received assistance from the Department of Transportation during the Feb. 9 snowstorm, 19 had “inadequate tires,” said Ryan Rice, the Department of Transportation’s director of transportation system management and operations.
Some say the problem is out-of-town drivers who have little experience driving in snow and may not be familiar with what “proper equipment” and “adequate tires” on the roads mean. More extreme solutions include setting up tire checkpoints before the passes as is done in California on Donner Pass, or issuing hefty tickets for drivers in an accident due to bad tires.
Colorado Department of Transportation executive director Don Hunt he’s skeptical that such measures will work, and said he suspects a much more local group.
“This isn’t about a daily occurrence. It’s on the weekends during peak times. It’s season pass holders,” he said. “I would ask the ski areas about thinking what their role is in solving this problem.”
Some are doing just that. Colorado Ski Country President Melanie Mills said the association would like to partner with the state Department of Transportation to educate drivers on what they need to drive safely in the winter.
“I’ve lived in Denver for 25 years and am president of Colorado Ski Country, and I can’t tell you what adequate tread is,” she said. “Can we partner a way to put out videos to educate people?”
Another solution is to limit the number of commercial trucks on the road. The number of semi-trucks going through the mountain corridor in the winter was already down 10 percent last year, but some are suggesting that the Colorado State Patrol also crack down on truck drivers driving without chains.
CHANGING THE CULTURE
One of the most puzzling challenges, said Hunt, is changing the Colorado driving culture. Transportation officials have been trying to introduce the “auto sock” for several years, without much success. The traction device is an easy-to-install cover for your tires that gives them extra grip in snowy conditions. They retail for $105 for a set. On Feb. 9, those 19 vehicles with inadequate tires were given the traction devices by the Department of Transportation to help get them over the pass, then offered the opportunity to keep the socks for $60. All but one declined to buy the product.
The Department of Transportation has also tried to work with airport rental car companies to equip rentals with the traction devices for little-to-no cost for the company and customers, but got little interest.
“When I moved here in 1982, we bought a four-wheel drive car because we didn’t want to get caught in an accident,” said Hunt. “I think we’ve lost that sense here, and I don’t know how to change that culture.”
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