Colorado’s runaway truck ramps, fixtures for many years, see renewed focus in marketing campaign for freeway security

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A road with a sign on it at night.
Visitors passes below the signal for the Decrease Straight Creek runaway truck ramp at mile marker 209 on westbound Interstate 70 above Silverthorne on Nov. 27. The ramp, like others on steep mountain descents, are designed to decelerate massive automobiles shortly within the occasion of overheated brakes or different mechanical failures. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Solar)

On the rising, falling, twisting 90-mile stretch of Interstate 70 from the foothills outdoors Denver to Vail, truckers can play recorded audio of C.W. McCall — stage identify for the late artist who recorded the chart-topping novelty music “Convoy” — speaking them by the risks of Colorado mountain driving.

“Make completely positive your brakes are in fine condition,” McCall says with the identical deep drawl he delivered to his 1975 hit that capitalized on the CB radio craze of that period. “Should you bought a superb set of brakes, and a head filled with widespread sense, we are able to nearly assure you’re gonna have a secure journey throughout these large ol’ lovely Rocky Mountains. Piece of cake.”

The recording, which guides drivers mile marker by mile marker alongside the interstate, was created as a cassette tape giveaway by the Colorado Motor Carriers Affiliation in 1990, up to date to CD in 2006 and stays accessible on digital recordsdata. McCall, recognized in actual life as Invoice Fries, a former mayor of the city of Ouray, goes on to warn that the I-70 drive is just not for the faint of coronary heart, however “filled with steep hills, deep canyons, sharp curves, drop-offs into lengthy, scary downgrades, runaway truck ramps in all places.” 

For many years these ramps have branched off — and normally sharply upward — from highways, providing last-chance reprieves for principally out-of-state truckers barreling helplessly downhill due to overheated brakes, mechanical failure or unfamiliarity with driving conventions on Colorado’s treacherous slopes. 

Now, they’re getting renewed consideration amid a broader marketing campaign, a public-private security collaboration referred to as “The Mountain Guidelines.”

“We’ve extra runaway vans on this state than anyplace else within the nation, palms down,” says Greg Fulton, president and CEO of the Colorado Motor Carriers Affiliation, one of many companions within the marketing campaign. “While you’re out-of-state drivers, they might solely come by right here a few times. It’s attempting to get in entrance of them and say, ‘Hey, you gotta be ready for this. That is completely different than in all probability virtually anything you’ll see on the market.’”

There are 13 runaway truck ramps throughout the state. They stretch from the Mount Vernon ramp on eastbound I-70 close to Genesee to eastbound U.S. 141 by Slick Rock close to the Utah border. The farthest north covers Rabbit Ears Go close to Steamboat Springs, whereas others mark problematic downhills between Ouray and Durango — a stretch McCall little question knew effectively — on U.S. 550 in addition to both aspect of Monarch Go alongside U.S. 50.

Farthest south are two emergency ramps on U.S. 160 over Wolf Creek Go, a very harmful space the place, between 2015-19, 47 semi-truck drivers crashed on the west aspect of the cross, close to the scenic overlook space, and three drivers died. From 2019-23, the cross noticed 11 complete makes use of of its two ramps, in response to the Colorado Division of Transportation.

Maybe most importantly, when it comes to sheer site visitors and topography, 4 ramps dot I-70 between the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel and Vail — a part of the hall focused by McCall’s downhome trucker narrative. Drivers heading westbound towards Silverthorne have a putting view of two ramps, the second referred to as the Decrease Straight Creek ramp — essentially the most used within the nation (some enterprise the world)  due to a harmful 5.5 miles of seven% downhill grade.

A yellow sign on the side of a road.
Runaway vans drove into Colorado’s 13 ramps, 44 instances in 2022. The Decrease Straight Creek ramp, proven right here, is by far the busiest within the state, stopping 75 vans in 5 years. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Solar)

Colorado’s runaway truck ramps have been used 13 instances in 2019, although CDOT suspects that some makes use of could have gone unrecorded, leading to what seems to be a statistical outlier compared to subsequent years. In 2020, 30 makes use of have been recorded, whereas 2021 had 32 and 2022 spiked to 44. To this point this yr, 31 vans have taken benefit of them.

“What we’ve been attempting to do over the previous a number of years is to get larger effectivity on our reporting and guarantee that we’re recording this in order that we all know how usually they’re used,” says Keith Stefanik, chief engineer for the Colorado Division of Transportation. 

There’s no cost for barreling up (normally) a steep incline cushioned with deep, free gravel or sand designed to mix gravity with elevated friction to sluggish huge automobiles to a cease. Nevertheless, most circumstances require a towing service to extricate a truck, usually an expensive proposition that additionally triggers notification of the Colorado State Patrol — although the CSP makes some extent of not ticketing drivers for benefiting from the security function, for worry of discouraging use.

“We don’t need that to be their mindset of, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to get a ticket if I do that,’” CSP Grasp Trooper Gary Cutler says.

Extra regarding are the instances drivers, careening down a mountain freeway with failing brakes or different malfunctions, fail to make use of runaway truck ramps in any respect — whether or not out of panic, easy poor judgment or worry of authorized or skilled repercussions from aborting their business route.

“We’ve had devastating conditions when they need to have been used they usually haven’t been used,” Cutler says. “My private opinion as a state trooper, I’d reasonably see them use it as a precaution in the event that they suppose they’re going to have issues earlier than they get down than to bypass one and say, ‘, I in all probability ought to have taken that however I didn’t.’”

A yellow circle on a black background.

We’ve extra runaway vans on this state than anyplace else within the nation, palms down.

— Greg Fulton, president and CEO of the Colorado Motor Carriers Affiliation

One of many tragic conditions Cutler alludes to additionally triggered new consideration to the ramps and to the bigger security dialog round heavy vans and mountain driving. In 2019, a Texas driver whose brakes failed as he descended Mount Vernon Canyon on I-70 was liable for a horrific crash and a 28-vehicle pileup that killed 4 folks and injured six others.

The motive force, 25-year-old Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos, testified that by the point he misplaced his brakes he didn’t see the final two indicators for the Mount Vernon ramp, and famous that the ramp’s configuration — working downhill and parallel to the interstate as an alternative of branching off uphill — was unfamiliar.

Convicted on 4 counts of vehicular murder and almost two dozen extra prices, Aguilera-Mederos was sentenced to 110 years in jail. Gov. Jared Polis ultimately decided that the necessary sentence was “arbitrary and unjust” and commuted the sentence to 10 years.

The crash — and the missed alternative to keep away from it — refocused the eye of CDOT, the freight business and others on runaway truck ramps. Stefanik says CDOT began monitoring the numbers extra carefully lately, and decided the three most regularly used ramps. The Decrease Straight Creek ramp has been used 75 instances over the previous 5 years — by far the busiest. 

The second highest utilization comes on the not too long ago rebuilt ramp at mile marker 182, towards the underside of Vail Go, with 27 makes use of in the identical interval. And the third highest is alongside U.S. 40, at mile marker 142 simply south of Steamboat Springs, with 10 makes use of.

Revamping the Mount Vernon ramp

The state centered specific consideration on the Mount Vernon ramp — the one introduced by reminders, after a considerable descent, that truckers nonetheless aren’t all the best way down but. Within the wake of the 2019 crash, low utilization of the ramp prompted officers to hunt suggestions from trucking business teams on methods to alter that. One factor they heard was that higher entrance signage may elevate consciousness of the ramp as a viable choice for drivers.

Additionally they acknowledged that the ramp, constructed within the late Nineteen Seventies, may use some structural upgrading. This week, CDOT and its contractor will shut the ramp for work to enhance the design, construction and indicators alerting drivers to its availability.

Stefanik notes that emergency ramp design hasn’t modified a lot over time, aside from a not too long ago included environmental aspect — a water-oil separator that acts like a manhole-sized drain that separates doubtlessly hazardous materials, like diesel gasoline, and returns clear water to the storm sewer system. 

A man standing in front of a mountain recovery truck.
Mountain Restoration proprietor Charlie Stubblefield, who beforehand labored as a firefighter and paramedic, started the massive truck towing firm in 2019 after utilizing his private pickup truck to serving to others stranded on the aspect of Interstate 70. Stubblefield says by swiftly eradicating the wreckage of huge semi-trucks and different automobiles Mountain Restoration has diminished the time the freeway is closed due to crashes by 64%. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Solar)

“We don’t must get in there and do the hazardous materials mitigation,” Stefanik says. “We’re capable of get that truck out after which get that truck ramp again open.” 

The Mount Vernon ramp differs from many of the others in Colorado partly as a result of it doesn’t depend on topography — and gravity — to sluggish a barreling semi. As a substitute, it leans closely on friction from the combination materials on the ramp’s arrestor mattress. The brand new development will improve the depth of that materials to 36 inches to attain a quicker cease on the downhill grade. 

CDOT will implement quite a few different instruments to each encourage higher use in an emergency and extra safely and successfully convey a truck — or vans, because the ramp has been improved to accommodate doubtlessly as much as three automobiles — to a secure halt. 

Bigger boundaries between the ramp and the steep embankment to the suitable add one other security aspect, plus give drivers added confidence. Trade enter revealed that drivers felt the outdated barrier regarded too small, particularly from their elevated perch, to maintain them from launching over the sting.

“I believe there’s a nervousness whenever you’re it,” CMCA’s Fulton says. “To some extent it’s a bit of bit completely different than a number of the others and it virtually appears to be like prefer it’s going to drop off there.”

The retooled ramp additionally will make use of cameras and lighting to inform officers when it’s in use to enhance response and reset time. Though the improved ramp shall be shorter than the unique, the brand new design will make it extra seen, and the place as soon as drivers may need thought they missed the entry to the ramp, the brand new configuration permits them to line up for entry from the beginning of the arrestor mattress.

The ramp will stay closed till completion of the enhancements in late Might or early June. Use of ramps tends to say no within the winter months as climate circumstances usually demand slower speeds, however CDOT and CMCA, together with different stakeholders, have collaborated on a communications marketing campaign to maintain drivers suggested that the ramp shall be closed to allow them to be particularly cautious on that stretch of freeway.

“We check out dangers each methods — danger of getting it down, and danger of not reconstructing and never making these enhancements,” Stefanik says. “We attempt to outlay that and make an informed resolution.”

The aftershock of restoration

Veering into the slim hall of a runaway truck ramp looms as a frightening proposition, although the directions for doing so are easy. Maneuver to the far proper lane on method. Intention straight forward and maintain the wheels aligned. Attempt to stay within the middle of the gravel mattress to keep away from tipping over. When the rig slows to a cease, name 9-1-1.

As soon as completed, the expertise isn’t usually repeated.

“I haven’t run throughout anyone that’s accomplished it twice,” notes CSP’s Cutler.

On the ramps that dot the busy I-70 hall, the primary particular person many runaway truck drivers see after their ordeal is Charlie Stubblefield, proprietor of Mountain Restoration, who oversees 19 vans and 30 workers out of places in Vail, Silverthorne and Golden. He brings a message of encouragement.

“We all the time applaud these guys for taking that leap of religion and utilizing that runaway ramp, as a result of that’s an excellent scary factor,” he says. “And it takes some balls to try this. Some guys attempt to wait it out they usually cross these runaway ramps up after which they find yourself crashed or rolled over on the backside of the Silverthorne exit — with probably folks damage and killed and a number of different automobiles concerned.” 

A man talking on a cell phone in the driver's seat of a vehicle.
Charlie Stubblefield solutions the cellphone Nov. 27 whereas patrolling the interstate on Vail Go. The Mountain Restoration proprietor has 19 vans and 30 workers working from places in Vail, Silverthorne and Golden. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Solar)

Whereas Stubblefield has discovered drivers’ emotion to run the gamut when he arrives to assist pull them out of the ramp, he does acknowledge a recurring theme: They have a tendency to right away blame the mechanic or whomever final labored on their brakes.

So he turns the encounter right into a teachable second, recounting that when he began Mountain Restoration and towed loaded semis down the mountain — 80,000 kilos’ price hooked up to his 50,000-pound wrecker — he by no means used his brakes to take care of a secure pace. 

“We all know that within the tallest, steepest, longest grades in North America right here that we’re coping with, your brakes is not going to cease you,” Stubblefield explains. “You want your engine brake; you want your downshifting; you want your transmission to sluggish you down and cease you. 

“As soon as I inform them that they’re like, ‘Oh, perhaps it’s my fault. I used to be utilizing my brakes and I in all probability shouldn’t have been. I ought to have been in a decrease gear.’”

Usually, he says, they’re shaken and scared that they’ll be cited when a state trooper arrives to make a report. The complete expertise has made some rethink their profession selection.

“We’ve had drivers that simply give up proper there,” Stubblefield says. “They get out of their truck they usually’re like, ‘Take me to an airport, please. I actually don’t wish to discuss to anyone. Get me an Uber. I wish to go to an airport and I’m accomplished. I’m going dwelling.’ We’ve had that occur on a number of events.”

Even Stubblefield, when he finds himself atop the often-used Decrease Straight Creek ramp under the Eisenhower tunnel, admits to being a bit of awestruck by the dizzying vertical rise.

“Simply it from the underside doesn’t do it justice,” he says. “No video will ever do it justice. It’s simply being there — outdoors your automobile and standing there as a human being on that ramp. It’s fairly spectacular.” 

For trucking corporations, a straightforward removing by a tow truck would possibly run $1,500, however they’ll go a lot larger. Stubbefield is conscious of 1 job that wound up costing $35,000, after a driver mistakenly took an adjoining entry street reasonably than the precise runaway truck ramp on Vail Go and despatched his rig airborne over an embankment and into the timber.

A yellow circle on a black background.

We all the time applaud these guys for taking that leap of religion and utilizing that runaway ramp, as a result of that’s an excellent scary factor.

— Colorado State Patrol Grasp Trooper Gary Cutler

The decrease ramp on Vail Go that CDOT revamped a pair years in the past now has contours that make restoration comparatively straightforward. As a substitute of vans working up a steep hill, they settle in additional of a valley. That stands in distinction to the Decrease Straight Creek ramp, the place as soon as a truck’s momentum has been stopped close to the highest, it may reverse and jackknife or roll, relying on the situation of the truck’s brakes and whether or not the combination is mushy or frozen exhausting — additional complicating the restoration. 

“There’s so many variables that come into play,” Stubblefield says.

Bringing the regulation on top of things

CDOT continues to have a look at the info to establish the place they’ve seen scorching brake points and accidents to research these places to find out whether or not an extra truck escape ramp can be helpful.

Colorado Sunday issue No. 111: "This way to safety"
Colorado Sunday concern No. 111: “This approach to security”

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“For essentially the most half, I believe we have now them on the right places,” Stefanik says, “however we’re all the time seeking to enhance security so we’ll proceed to have a look.”

Expertise continues to assist the security effort. Thermal sensors assist avert overheating brakes. Subscription-based, in-cab alert programs notify drivers of steep grades and places of runaway truck ramps and different companies. An algorithm-based warning system geared to the scale of the truck, nonetheless within the starting stage, may ultimately ship secure downhill speeds to drivers.

Colorado additionally has taken authorized steps to encourage drivers to focus consideration on mountain habits.

The state legislature earlier this yr handed a invoice that, efficient Jan. 1, permits CDOT to ascertain “steep downhill grade zones” — outlined by grades of 5% or higher — the place violations of the posted pace restrict can price the driving force doubled fines plus surcharges.

However when preventative measures fail, there are nonetheless 13 last-ditch alternatives to dodge catastrophe.

“There’s not one single factor that’s going to take an enormous chunk out of fatalities and critical accidents,” Stefanik says. “It’s going to be a complete system. I believe truck escape ramps are a part of that.”