Your guide to winter driving in the Colorado High Country
January 5, 2017
We’ve all been there.
Snow is swirling, visibility is limited, windshield wiper fluid is running on empty and suddenly the most relevant thing ahead is a pair of ominous red lights.
Brakes grind, tires fly over snow-packed pavement and what might have been an avoidable collision becomes inevitable.
Back up a few days, 30 minutes or even 15 crucial seconds and there are a number of precautions drivers can take to keep weather-induced accidents from ruining a powder day.
Winter driving – particularly in the mountains and even more so in a resort community where roads are populated by drivers from somewhere else – is a dangerous and unpredictable sport in which slower speeds, snow tires and timing can make all the difference.
“The biggest problem is people going too fast for conditions,” Summit County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Tracy LeClair said. “We want people to slow down and give plenty of space to the car in front of them.”
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Weather-appropriate tires are also important. In Colorado, drivers can be ticketed after an accident for having bald or improper tires.
Still, no one should assume other vehicles are equipped with winter tires, particularly in a resort destination like Summit County, where many people on the road are not driving cars equipped for the local winter environment.
“What you need to think about is stopping distances,” Bridgestone Winter Driving School instructor Kurt Spitzner said. “In the winter, it’s all about the tire. So when you’re on public roads with people from literally everywhere, you’re going to be dealing with a whole bunch of different available traction per vehicle.”
Experts also recommend looking and planning ahead on icy roads, which provides a longer grace period to react to unexpected problems and obstacles.
“If you find yourself creeping up on the steering wheel, push yourself back in the seat, pick your head up and make yourself look ahead,” Spitzner said. “You want to be able to see as far into the future as you can so you can always respond to what’s coming up.”
On downhill slopes, experts say the best technique is to downshift, to avoid reducing control over the vehicle by riding the brakes.
In the High Country, winter weather can be unpredictable and can change rapidly over short distances. When in doubt, drivers are advised to avoid the road altogether or to wait out the weather if the conditions seem too challenging.
“If you’re getting ready to start your journey and things are already not good, perhaps you need to reconsider,” Spitzner said.
With heavy traffic and steep grades, Interstate 70 between Denver and Summit County can be a difficult drive even with dry roads. Add in winter weather conditions and the trip becomes even more challenging.
The Colorado Department of Transportation operates 20 maintenance trucks in the western segment of the I-70 mountain corridor alone during snowstorms. Snowplows are out on the roads in 12-hour shifts, and they’re the one commercial vehicle on the road drivers shouldn’t mind being stuck behind.
“One of the safest places to be in bad weather is right behind the snowplow,” CDOT spokesman Bob Wilson said. “That’s where you’ll find the clearest roads and the best traction.”
Transportation officials also advise drivers planning to travel the I-70 corridor to be prepared with a shovel, ice scraper, warm clothes, water, non-perishable food, a flashlight, jumper cables and a full tank of gas in case the car gets stuck.
“If you get stranded, we always say, don’t leave your vehicle unless you absolutely have to,” Wilson said. “If you do get stranded, you should run your vehicle every few minutes at a time to stay warm.”
Drivers can check road conditions on I-70 by calling 511 or online at CoTrip.org.