Between Utah and Maryland runs over 2,000 miles of Interstate 70. Every year, caravans of cars commute via I-70 across the Rocky Mountain Continental Divide, right in the middle of Colorado, where road, weather and traffic conditions make for some of the most dangerous driving in the country. Year after year, fatalities are in the hundreds. Storms in every season are liable to obscure vision and make surfaces slick on steep grades and tight curves reaching well over 9,000′, and at speeds over 70 mph. Summit County, Colorado, surrounded by mountain passes up to 11,000′ and above, is the highway traveler’s gauntlet of possible peril. As another year comes to a close and Winter peak season gets into full swing, preparing to get up to this elevation is just as important as preparing for the altitude while you are here.
Born and raised at Colorado’s highest elevations, Chris Erickson is well into his fourth year working for the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), up at the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel, as an Operator Dispatcher: he monitors traffic flow and conditions, deploying staff, services and heavy machinery when necessary. They operate the Colorado traffic management center from his roost right at the Continental Divide, which covers I-70’s mountain corridor. Over 200 miles of winding highway from Dotsero to Golden. He’s seen his share of disasters, so it occurred to me that he may have some valuable observations and advice for the rest of us.
The most intimidating aspect of his role is pretty much the same now as it was when he first started: Winter storms. When the snow gets heavy, they get out the big guns, snow plows deployed from every affected region, operating over stretches of 10 to 20 miles. There is a lot more to this than the drivers think, and I’ve seen cars trying to squeeze around side-by-side plows on icy roads, not aware that they are in formation to control traffic while effectively clearing snow and debris.
What is one thing you wish people would stop doing, knowing what you know now?
Obey the laws, observe speed limits. I wish semi drivers would stop catching on fire all the time. Their brakes catch on fire when they haul ass going down the hill [from the tunnel].
How could we forget about the variety of vehicles on the highway? You will often find yourself right next to literal tons of machinery flying down steep grades. Trucks jackknifing is not an uncommon sight, especially in the Winter, and there are enough runaway truck ramps to suggest these monsters losing their brakes is not uncommon, either.
What is one thing you wish drivers would start doing?
I wish people would educate themselves more on driving conditions in the mountains before they came up here. I wish people would educate themselves more on the difficulties of travel on this mountain corridor. There are just so many things: cliffs, rocks that fall all the time … we’re trying, but we only have so many plow drivers and we can’t be plowing every inch of the road every minute. For example, Silverthorne Hill, if that starts to get backed up, the plows can’t get through when they turn around and head back uphill. It’s difficult to manage this corridor with all the obstacles at elevation. People need to be more patient.
When it comes to road and weather conditions, what do you consider to be the worst or most dangerous?
If you didn’t know, now you know. It’s in the local news year after year, but the very thing about black ice is its lack of visibility. Blending right into the black of the asphalt, this ice that has been sitting on the highway without warm conditions to allow it to melt is the cause of many accidents.
Animals on the road: moose, elk, deer …
The sheer size of these animals rivals the weight of the largest SUVs you’ll see on the highway. Trying to predict the animal’s movement is useless, so it’s best to be prepared to come to a full stop when necessary. Road signs where animal activity are often present are up and down this corridor, and variable message signs (VMS) will always report the immediate presence of reported sightings.
Incidentally, writing the messages you see on these VMS is one of Erickson’s responsibilities. If you’ve paid any attention to each marquis in the mountain corridor (which you should be), you’ve read his work. He often jokes that he is the most widely read author in the state.
“Moose, marmots and motor homes: Spring Migration is on!” is the one he is most proud of, he says. I must admit, it’s pretty clever. When you put it that way, humans are arguably the most migratory animal on the planet.
Fortunately, drivers aren’t left completely without aid on this dangerous trek. CDOT provides a Courtesy Patrol that many are not aware of. This service will dispatch to the location of vehicles that need assistance moving out of the way of oncoming traffic to a safe space to troubleshoot all kinds of common car troubles from flat tires to running out of fuel. They won’t get you to your final destination, but they will give you up to a gallon of gas to move out of danger.
They’ll help you change a tire. They’ll give you a jump. They’d probably even let you use a phone or let you charge your own.
I ask Erickson if there’s anything else he’d like to share with drivers through the mountain corridor:
Buckle up. The worst wrecks often happen on clear, dry days with dry roads.
If you plan to be out there in the middle of the highway through the mountains, be patient, be kind, be courteous. There are long stretches of highway where cell service is unreliable. Being stuck roadside in the mountains requires more than the standard emergency kit. Temperatures are often below freezing in the winter, so bring gloves, hand warmers, blankets, washer fluid (don’t add water) for your car, water (don’t add washer fluid) for yourself, and warm, waterproof boots you can push a car in (worst case scenario). For more insight into how cars operate differently at altitude, check out our previous article on The Physiology of an Automobile.
Thanks for lookin’ out, Chris!
Roberto Santos is from the remote island of Saipan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. He has since lived in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and has made Colorado his current home, where he is a web developer, musician, avid outdoorsman and prolific reader. When he is not developing applications and graphics, you can find him performing with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, snowboarding Vail or Keystone, soaking in hot springs, or reading non-fiction at a brewery.