VALLEY – Dryer roads and mild weather can mean safer driving conditions for most motorists. However, when traveling through Colorado’s mountains, semi-truck drivers can encounter challenging and dangerous conditions regardless of the weather. The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) is warning big rig drivers to use extreme caution when traveling over mountain passes, like US Highway (US) 160 Wolf Creek.
“The number of crashes over the years underscores the need to slow down over this mountain pass,” said CDOT Deputy Superintendent of Maintenance Bill Pentek. “From 2011 to 2015, there have been 49 semi-truck crashes on the west side of Wolf Creek Pass. Two of those crashes resulted in needless fatalities.”
Additionally, a majority of the crashes occurred at the switchback curve located near the Wolf Creek scenic lookout area.
“This pass can be very deceiving to the traveling public,” added George Hudran, CDOT maintenance foreman for Wolf Creek Pass. “The highway is wide with three and four lanes along some stretches and ample shoulders. Many truck drivers are fooled by these road features, to only find themselves out-of-control once they’ve made it half way down the pass.”
CDOT conducted a road safety audit of Wolf Creek Pass during the summer of last year (2016). The results from that audit will help identify potential safety issues and possible opportunities for future safety improvements of the pass.
In the meantime, CDOT urges all roadway users, especially commercial truck drivers to be attentive to the road.
KNOW THE ROAD: “The drivers of commercial vehicles and heavy trucks should always take time to familiarize themselves with their routes.” added Hudran. “Knowledge and understanding of the road is extremely important when traversing over mountain passes, especially one like Wolf Creek Pass.”
What is the speed limit? The posted speed limit for traffic traveling westbound, downhill from the summit varies from 25 to 45 MPH. Commercial trucks must maintain the lower 25 MPH speed.
What is the grade of the pass? The west side of the pass is at a 7 percent downhill grade.
What is the distance from the summit to the west base? The distance from the summit (near Wolf Creek Ski Area) to the west base of the pass (near Treasure Falls) is just over eight miles.
What curves will drivers encounter? A dangerous hairpin curve is located six and a half miles from the summit of Wolf Creek Pass.
Are there public access areas on the pass route? A ski area, forest roads and a public scenic lookout are all points of access along US 160 Wolf Creek Pass in which truckers may encounter other vehicles attempting to enter or exit the roadway.
Where are brake stations, chain-up stations and runaway ramps located?
Truck drivers should inspect their brakes at the summit, before descending the eight-mile trip down the pass. A wide shoulder area is available to all motorists traveling both west and eastbound. This area can also be used as chain-up station.
Two runaway escape ramps are available for out-of-control trucks at mile points (MP) 162.5 and 161.
Other southwest/south-central Colorado passes include: US 550 Red Mountain, Molas and Coal Bank Passes; Colorado Highway (CO) 145 Lizard Head Pass; CO 17 La Manga-Cumbres Pass; and US 50 Monarch Pass.
MAINTAIN CONTROL: Even the most experienced drivers should practice the utmost caution and safe driving practices to keep control of their vehicles.
Check brakes before descending the pass.
Maintain a low speed, in low gear. Use flashers to warn other vehicles of the truck’s low speed.
Do not “ride” the truck’s brakes. This will cause overheating and possible loss of the brake system.
Jake Brakes (or compression brakes) can be a useful braking mechanism to help control the speed of a heavy truck. However, the best practice is to remain in low gears to avoid overheating.
Keep brakes cool by pulling into brake stations or onto the shoulder of the road, if a safe spot can be located.
RUNAWAY RAMPS: Two runaway ramps are located on the west side of Wolf Creek Pass for trucks traveling downhill and westbound. These emergency escape ramps are located on the right side of the road and preceded by warning signs at each location. Both are incline ramps.
Runaway Ramp, MP 162.5 – approximately 4.5 miles from the pass summit.
Runaway Ramp, MP 161 – approximately 6 miles from the pass summit. This location is a trucker’s last chance to make a decision to use the ramp.
If drivers are forced to use a runaway ramp:
Maneuver the trucks into the far right lane before approaching upgrade ramps.
As the truck approaches the runaway ramp, steer straight and try to keep the wheels aligned.
Ramps are narrow. Attempt to stay in the center of the ramp to avoid any risk of rolling over.
Once the truck is stopped call 911 to report the incident, even if there are not injures associated with the episode.
NEVER HESITATE: “If a truck driver has lost control, there should never be a hesitation to use the runaway ramps,” Deputy Superintendent Pentek emphasized. “If a truck’s brakes fail due to overheating or excessive use going downhill, runaway ramps are the only way the truck will be able to stop."
Truckers should also consider the load they are hauling. The goods carried on the trucks and in the trailers are essentially the drivers’ income; there should be great concern protecting that commodity.
Pentek concluded, "There may be monetary consequences for using a runaway ramp -- potential fees associated with a tow company's removal of the truck from the ramp or perhaps even a law enforcement fine. But not using the ramp can result in the ultimate cost: the irreplaceable life of a driver or the lives of those they share the road with.”
While runaway ramps may be considered a last resort, the important thing to remember is: It is imperative to maintain control of the vehicle so use of these ramps is not required.
STAY INFORMED: CDOT provides an abundance of information specifically for the trucking community. Visit CDOT’s website at www.codot.gov > Travel > Commercial Vehicles/Trucker Information. Members of the commercial trucking community can also find information about Wolf Creek Pass by clicking on the red box: “Learn how to protect yourself.” The page contains tips on preparing for trips, using escape ramps, and knowing details about the pass. A map of Wolf Creek Pass can be seen and a video can be viewed of a commercial semi-truck that burned out its brakes while traveling too fast down the pass. The video is also available on CDOT’s YouTube channel.
Or visit www.COtrip.org > Truckers. On this website truck drivers will find information about chain laws, chain stations, routes, traffic, I-70, hazmat, and permits.