Idiocy drives traffic jams in the mountains

Denver Post – 2/28/14

Ski traffic on I-70 is bad enough due to high volume, but when it turns from hassle to nightmare, it’s usually due to foolish drivers trying to make it through the high country on bald tires.
This was the ineluctable conclusion stated by Colorado Department of Transportation officials this week, and they couldn’t be more on the mark. I have never been anything but impressed and thankful at the yeoman’s work the plow drivers of CDOT do on a regular basis, at all hours of the day and night and in every awful blizzard condition imaginable.

CDOT is doing its best, so if we want to stop making trips to the mountains a hellish experience during winter high season, we all need to be responsible for one thing: traction.
Ask any high country resident and he’ll tell you who causes the trouble, and it isn’t Texans. It’s Front Range drivers with crappy all-season tires or in four-wheel drive vehicles they believe make them impervious to the laws of ice — and physics. It’s also clueless truckers who either don’t have chains or ignore the law. Once they start spinning their wheels, ski-traffic hell is sure to follow.

There used to be a thing called “the chain law,” and back in the 1980s, when my family owned an auto parts store in Frisco, we sold chains by the dozen to drivers looking to make it back to Denver during a storm. State patrollers would actually be out there to see if you had decent snow tires, or chains. The increase in the number of cars with front- or four-wheel drive and the use of road deicers perhaps made these inspections seem outmoded, but it seems clear that’s not really the case. It’s obviously time to start enforcing the old chain law to keep people off a snowy highway if their vehicle isn’t equipped for it.

The idea of allowing only four-wheel drive vehicles on the Interstate during storms, but that’s going too far. Most front-wheel drive cars equipped with good snow tires or traction devices (chains or these new sock-like things that are a lot easier to put on) can do fine on snowy and icy roads. I commuted from Frisco to Vail for three years in a Honda Civic, and the only thing that ever caused me trouble were the damn trucks that weren’t chained up or the Front Rangers either spinning out in their ill-equipped sedans or getting upside-down in their SUVs.

Let us not forget rental cars. Few if any are equipped with snow tires, even when the rental companies at DIA know full well where these folks are headed. If it takes a couple of extra dollars on every rental to equip them with adequate tires for Colorado, then that’s the cost of driving in the high country winter.

Stricter laws and enforcement seem a necessary step toward reducing the number of awful nights on I-70. The volume of traffic nowadays may make vehicle inspection impractical, so tackling the problem should come in the form of educational campaigns and harsher punishments for those who flout the laws. If your 18-wheeler causes a four-hour backup on I-70, you should get more than a slap on the wrist for a fine.

We all have a stake in addressing this problem. The ski areas lose business when the news from I-70 week after week is “it was awful!” The state and its citizens pay dearly for every wasted minute out there, and then there’s the terrible cost from injuries and deaths that result from wrecks.

It’s really pretty simple: If you plan to drive in the mountains in winter, make sure your vehicle is up for the task. If not, we all pay.

Alex Miller is the former editor of the Summit Daily News and the Vail Daily. He lives in Highlands Ranch.


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