EAGLE COUNTY — Snow storms on Vail Pass often result in accidents. One crash Sunday afternoon could have been much, much worse.
About mid-afternoon, a westbound vehicle lost control on Vail Pass, bounced off a concrete barrier and ended up in a snow drift on the right side of the road.
The first emergency vehicle on scene was driven by a member of the Colorado Department of Transportation Safety Patrol. The driver of that vehicle pulled over and got out to check on the passengers in the first car. The safety vehicle’s emergency lights were flashing, indicating that drivers should pull into the left lane.
This is when things get scary. According to Jake Best of the Colorado State Patrol, another westbound vehicle lost control at the spot — near the “narrows” portion of the road, and smacked into the Safety Patrol driver’s blue Ford pickup. Both vehicles were badly damaged in the crash, but no one was hurt.
Best noted that neither the first vehicle that went off the road nor the vehicle that hit the Safety Patrol pickup had adequate tires for the conditions.
No one was injured in the incident.
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In this case, it was probably a good thing the driver was outside the vehicle. But, Best said, it’s hard to tell whether being in or outside of a vehicle is more dangerous.
“Sometimes there is no safe space,” Best said.
Crashes are fairly common whenever it snows. Sometimes, those crashes involve emergency crews — police officers, firefighters, ambulance crews and tow truck drivers.
Best said it doesn’t have to be snowing to make working the interstate a risky business.
“It’s always a dangerous job,” Best said. “Any call on the interstate, from traffic stops to road closures,” can result in a crash.
Costs can be high
Every year in Colorado there are incidents that injure emergency responders. In 2015 and 2016, two troopers were killed along Interstate 25 near Castle Rock.
Even when no one is injured or killed, roadside accidents can be costly.
In December 2013, an Eagle River Fire Protection District truck was badly damaged in an accident near Wilmore Lake west of Edwards. No one was hurt in that accident — although a firefighter had to dive out of the way of the car that hit the truck. But department public information officer Tracy LeClair said that truck was out of commission for nearly a year.
Best has worked for years for Eagle County public safety agencies. He said he once had a patrol car hit and badly damaged in Eagle-Vail. The Eagle Fire Protection District has also had a number of vehicles damaged in roadside accidents.
But Vail Pass has unique problems for emergency crews.
“You’ve got all those blind corners,” longtime Vail firefighter Craig Davis said. “If there isn’t a pre-warning, you’re coming in fast to an accident scene.”
Even when no one is injured in a roadside accident, broken vehicles can take a lot of time — and taxpayer money — to repair.
“We don’t have a plethora of extra cars,” Best said. Emergency vehicles all have unique, specialized equipment, he added. “You can’t just swap (that equipment) into another car.”
Over the past few years, there’s been an effort to educate motorists about the state’s “move over” law. That law requires motorists to either pull into another lane or slow down when passing virtually any stopped emergency vehicle.
‘Safety closures’ help, too
Vail Fire Chief Mark Novak’s firefighters respond to a lot of accidents on Vail Pass. Novak said he believes public education has helped cut down on roadside incidents. Novak added that the transportation department’s policy of temporary highway closures has also improved safety for those responding to accident scenes.
Novak noted that Vail Pass was closed for about an hour Sunday afternoon. While that’s inconvenient for motorists, Novak said multiple accidents can result in hours-long closures.
And, while laws and education help, there’s a cure for inattentive or unprepared drivers.
Best noted that Colorado’s move over law has been in effect for almost 10 years.
“It’s still a significant problem,” Best said.
Davis said visitors can add to the problem, since they may not be familiar with Colorado law, or may be driving vehicles that don’t have snow tires.
And, while all-season tires are usually fine for year-round use in most places, snow tires are the best way to navigate snowy and icy roads.
While emergency agencies have different jobs, Best said everyone working an accident scene has one request of other motorists:
“Please, always try to move over, and if you can’t move over, slow down, so we can all go home to our families,” he said.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at email@example.com or 970-748-2930.
What’s the law?
Colorado’s “move over” law requires drivers to move over and/or slow down when approaching stopped emergency and maintenance vehicles.