KILLER CURVES: Rabbit Ears has become a deadly drive
Higher speeds, changing road conditions causing accidents
Steamboat Springs — Scott MacFarland had to search his heart before he let his teen-age daughter drive over Rabbit Ears Pass — the road where his wife’s life came to an end last winter.
But finally letting Natalie go was a necessary part of the healing process.
“I had mixed feelings about it, but it’s given her courage to face it,” he said.
Natalie doesn’t like driving over the pass, but after living through the wreck that killed her mother, she’s made the trip about a dozen times for high school lacrosse games in other towns.
She said it helps to have her teammates in the van with her, but there are times when memories make the drive more difficult.
“It’s harder when I’m by myself with my country music tapes. That’s when I feel it,” she said.
Her mother’s death was one of four fatal wrecks on Rabbit Ears Pass in 1999, according to figures from the Colorado Department of Transportation.
At 9,426 feet in elevation, the pass that cuts through the Park Range is full of steep grades and dangerous curves that seem to attract ice. Each year, more than 300 inches of the champagne powder that draws visitors from all over the world falls on the roadway and has to be pushed back. The snowstorms bring high winds that gloss the highway, causing icy spots on shaded curves in the road. Sunshine makes the snow melt across the highway, forming black ice when the temperature drops at dusk.
Over the years, residents of the Yampa Valley have almost grown accustomed to hearing about the wrecks on the pass and the lives they take.
Three years ago, the speed limit on Rabbit Ears Pass increased from 55 to 60 mph in places. In 1997, there were no fatal wrecks on the pass, but there were two people killed in 1998 and four in 1999. This year, a trucker lost his life after an apparent brake malfunction.
Speed a factor
Speed is the biggest factor in wrecks on the pass, according to many officials.
“That’s based on the number of tickets we write up there,” Routt County Sheriff John Warner said. “People are just driving way too fast coming over Rabbit Ears Pass. If people would go 5 to 10 mph slower, these accidents might not happen.”
State troopers have identified the pass as a target area for increased patrolling to slow people down.
Trooper Brad Keadle, who has had to notify many families after someone has been killed, has responded to more injury accidents on the pass than he cares to remember.
“People assume that since the sign says 50, they can do that or slightly more,” he said. “Then they find themselves in a curve that has had no sunlight and they are out of control.”
“Most often, we just have people who are not experienced in mountain conditions driving faster than they should,” Keadle said.
George Heverling, a maintenance worker on Rabbit Ears Pass for 25 years, said the speed limit is too high.
“During adverse conditions, that’s way too fast,” Heverling said. “I see people not experienced in driving for the conditions.”
Keadle said the posted speed limit is based on perfect conditions, but conditions on the pass can change from one shadow to the next.
“I’ve seen spots glaze over in just a few minutes as the sun sets,” Keadle said. “People drive down the road at 65 mph and they’re thinking about the fight they just had or they’re talking on the cell phone or picking out a CD. That’s why I say, regardless of what we do, there are going to be bad crashes.”
Warning signs wanted
Scott MacFarland started investigating the safety of Rabbit Ears Pass after his wife was killed by an out-of-control pickup truck in February 1999. The accident that took her life happened on a clear day, on a corner that hid a 100-foot patch of black ice caused by snowmelt. The truck driver was coming uphill when he spun out of control into Nancy’s Subaru near a runaway truck ramp.
MacFarland said he first thought something was wrong with the road, but he said now he thinks differently.
“I think the maintenance guys do a tremendous job for the money they’re offered. No amount of maintenance would have made a difference in my wife’s wreck. It was an accident; unfortunately my wife wasn’t at fault,” he said. “The only thing that possibly could have helped the situation was warning motorists about the condition. Within 15 minutes, half a dozen drivers lost control there. The driver who killed my wife was just unprepared.”
The solution to making Rabbit Ears Pass safer, he said, is not road improvements that make it faster, but signs that warn people of the risks.
“If you could warn the motorist that this is a dangerous area — a short, sweet message to let people know that speed kills,” MacFarland said.
Keadle also thinks it’s time to put up signs such as “Caution: shady areas may be icy,” to warn motorists of adverse conditions.
MacFarland wants even stronger wording, but he encountered resistance from the Colorado Department of Transportation when he suggested signs similar to the “Truckers: don’t be fooled” messages found on Interstate 70.
“I wanted something like ‘Motorists: don’t be fooled. Shady areas through May,’ or, ‘This is a dangerous pass. X people have been killed.’ Something to remind people that it’s not as safe as they think,” MacFarland said.
Signs allowed on state and national highways are standardized, restricted by a manual used across the country to maintain consistency.
CDOT’s safety manager, Jim Nall, said a sign that shocks people into slowing down by stating that a certain number of people have been killed would not be accepted.
“That would be inappropriate. That pass is no different than any other pass in Colorado,” Nall said.
Compared to several other passes in the state, though, statistics indicate that Rabbit Ears Pass is different.
The number of vehicles traveling over the pass varies from year to year, but compared to other passes without a divider between the lanes, Rabbit Ears, from the runaway truck ramp near the western base of the pass to the intersection with Colorado 14 at Muddy Pass on the other side, has less traffic but more accidents.
The number of cars on Rabbit Ears averaged 2,400 a day in 1996. That year, there were 75 accidents — 26 of those caused injuries and two were fatal.
In 1997, Rabbit Ears averaged 2,200 vehicles a day with 64 accidents. Twenty of those involved injuries, but none were fatal.
In 1998, Rabbit Ears averaged 2,350 cars a day with 88 accidents.
That year, there were 46 accidents in a 10-mile section near the Routt-Grand county line on top of the pass. Of those 46 accidents, 29 caused injuries and two were fatal.
The 1998 accident rate on Rabbit Ears Pass, calculated by the Department of Transportation as the number of injury accidents per million by vehicles, ranged from 2.72 to 5.81. The fatal accident rate in the 10-mile section at the Routt-Grand County line was 24.31.
CDOT hasn’t published accident rates for 1999.
Another similar mountain pass that sees twice as much traffic as Rabbit Ears, U.S. 40 over Berthoud, had an accident rate that ranged from .58 to 2.4, with no fatalities.
A 35-mile section of Wolf Creek Pass above Pagosa Springs on U.S. 160 carried about 450 more vehicles per day than Rabbit Ears in 1998. Its accident rate ranged from 1.37 to 1.9 and its fatal accident rate was 9.77, still far below that of Rabbit Ears Pass.
Pushing for action
As part of the grieving process, MacFarland said he stepped away from the signage issue last year, but he said he’ll be ready to tackle it this summer.
“It hurts me when I hear about people dying up there because I feel irresponsible for not doing something,” he said. “What we need to do is figure out how to collect ourselves and get something done.”
MacFarland plans to elicit the support of the community to take his sign initiative to CDOT or even the state Legislature. He said he wants to hold a meeting in the next few weeks to form a task force to study the issue.
“You could place 100 signs up there and if people ignore the signs, you still have a problem,” MacFarland said. “If we put one sign up there that saves one life, I guess we’ve done something. But getting the state to put a sign up is another story.”
MacFarland said he has had trouble communicating with state officials about adding signs, but Nall said the process shouldn’t be difficult. Nall said he hasn’t received any sign requests for Rabbit Ears Pass recently, but he urged concerned residents to contact him.
“I treat one person’s request the same as I would 100 people. If somebody writes me a letter or gives me a phone call, we’ll look into it,” Nall said. “We’re bound by regulations, but we hunt for a way to say, ‘yes.’ If it makes good engineering sense, we’ll do it.”
Nall said it can take longer to get a sign approved by CDOT if it’s complicated or expensive. CDOT signs can range from $400 for a simple installation to $50,000 for a variable message board that requires a power source.
Electronic or solar-powered signs with messages that change with the weather and road conditions can be found at the base of Rabbit Ears Pass in Steamboat and outside Kremmling.
Keadle said securing funding for more signs at more strategic locations could take a while.
“We can’t put electronic signs all up and down the pass. That’s a massive project. Added warnings could help, but we’re still going to have people at times who die on our pass,” Keadle said. “We could lower the number, but we’ll still have people die. We’ll never have zero, but our goal is to get as close to no injury accidents as possible.”
Families want action
Troopers say speed was a factor in the wreck that killed Steven Closter’s sister, Liz, on Rabbit Ears Pass when she lost control of her car on an icy curve last December. Closter’s family members have traveled to Colorado at least once a year for the last 20 years and Steven said they support any initiative that would attempt to prevent fatal wrecks on Rabbit Ears Pass.
“We always remarked at how potentially dangerous the roads could be. The mountain roads are curvy, steep and largely without protective barriers safeguarding against head-on collisions or driving off the road. If guard rails or a ditch separating the two opposing lanes were in place, it is reasonably safe to assume that my sister would have avoided the fatal head-on crash she endured,” Steven Closter stated in an April 3 e-mail.
A median divider would hinder snow removal operations on Rabbit Ears Pass, according to officials. Snowplow operators need as much room as possible for snow storage so that a tunnel effect isn’t created from high snow banks.
Transportation Commissioner Bill Haight, who lives in Routt County, said the tunnel effect can lead to accidents.
“The tunnel changes people’s perceptions and head-ons occur. I don’t think a center median would be the solution unless we could widen the road and that would be tremendously expensive,” he said.
Walden resident Jim McDaniel said the snow was not pushed back enough on the sunny winter day he was driving his family over the pass in the flat summit section known as Buffalo Park. Their station wagon was hit by an out-of-control car driven by a Steamboat woman in January 1999.
Jim’s wife, Janis, died from injuries suffered in the wreck. He thinks the road needs to be wider.
“She came in a broadside slide in front of us. We couldn’t go left or right. If we had had more room, we could have avoided the wreck,” McDaniel said. “Imagine snow about three feet high pushed to the shoulders. It was like hitting a brick wall.”
As for guard rails, Haight said he thinks they’re in place where they’re needed, and he said few accidents happen because of people driving off the road.
Liz Closter went off the road after colliding with another vehicle. Steamboat Springs resident Tom Moore died after driving off Rabbit Ears Pass without braking in June 1999. Officials believe he may have fallen asleep.
Since those accidents, CDOT has added rumble strips, or tracked grooves at the edge of the road, which make a noise when they’re driven over, but they don’t help if a car is out of control on ice.
To melt ice, CDOT frequently uses a chemical solution called magnesium chloride on I-70, but a highway maintenance official said it’s only used here occasionally, in shaded areas.
“I am convinced it is a good thing under certain circumstances. The Forest Service doesn’t allow us to use the salt and sand mix all the time, though,” Heverling said.
Instead, CDOT uses scoria, or crushed volcanic rock mined in McCoy.
Putting more scoria or sand on the road increases the chance people will drive faster, Haight said.
“Drivers today don’t want to slow down, and the better you make the road, the faster they go,” Haight said.
CDOT has not decreased the amount or frequency of sanding, he added.
Meanwhile, the state is researching a solution to drainage problems that allow water to get under the road. That water then freezes and thaws, creating buckles in the pavement.
The freeze bumps might lead to accidents, which is why the state installs signs warning of road damage.
State officials also hope to start an extensive overlay project this summer and plan to straighten the curves on Muddy Pass near the U.S. 40 intersection with Colorado 14 by 2001.
Haight drives the pass several times a month to attend meetings in other parts of the state, and he said he notices a good presence from law enforcement.
“They are a tremendous help. They’re doing a very good job, but you couldn’t put enough of them out there to deter all the drivers from speeding. I think their presence has helped create an environment where we have less accidents than we might, though,” Haight said.
Accidents on Rabbit Ears Pass can’t be blamed on any one factor, he said. Instead, it’s a combination of weather, speed and the fact that it’s a mountain pass with inherent dangers.
“We spend most of our money on improvements, but studies show us the accidents are caused by the drivers. The area we can concentrate on is better road condition signage to improve the driver’s ability to cope with hazards,” Haight said.
Joanne Edge died on Rabbit Ears Pass in November 1998 when she lost control of her minivan on her way to Steamboat to visit family.
“I don’t know if there is a solution, because Jo had driven that pass all her life and she was a careful driver,” said Edge’s sister, Hazel Wheeler. “I don’t think she was speeding, but even at 45 mph, if you hit ice, you’re out of control.”
Haight said the way to prevent deadly accidents on Rabbit Ears Pass is to work on problems created by motorists.
“I can’t do anything about people driving in someone else’s lane or when a truck’s brakes fail,” Haight said. “We’re not going to tell people how to drive, but we’re going to give them all the information to help them drive better.”
That’s all Scott MacFarland wants — a way to slow people down, keeping other families from experiencing the pain he and his family have.
— To reach Michelle Bales call 871-4208 or e-mail email@example.com
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Wildfire experts call the process “hardening a home,” or creating defensive space, which is what homeowners need to do if they want wildland firefighters to try to defend their home during an emergency.