Mountain passes can be treacherous for semitrailer drivers, and one of worst in the state is in Southwest Colorado.
In fact, the Colorado Department of Transportation has a “Beware the Wolf” campaign to warn warn truck drivers to use extreme caution when traveling over Wolf Creek Pass on U.S. Highway 160.
Between 2011 and 2015, there were 49 semi-truck crashes, two of them fatal, on the west side of Wolf Creek Pass, according to CDOT. Most of the crashes occurred at the hairpin curve near the scenic lookout.
“Trucks get going too fast and they don’t have control of their brakes, and then pretty soon they can’t control the truck,” said Bob Pentek, the CDOT deputy superintendent of maintenance.
The main problem in most crashes is the truckers descend in too high of a gear, Pentek said. In most wrecks, Colorado State Patrol troopres estimate that trucks are going upwards of 50 mph, with many reaching speeds of 60 or 70 mph.
“Most of the crashes are due to speed,” Pentek said. “I just don’t think they realize what they’re in for until they get down there, and then they’re like, ‘I got a problem.’”
Most semi-truck crashes on the pass occur during the summer. Pentek believes that’s because initially, the pass isn’t steep and has two lanes, which can be misleading for big rig drivers. By the time the incline starts increasing and the road narrows up, drivers haven’t switched to lower gears.
Mark Yager, a trucker and former Pagosa Springs resident, concurs with Pentek’s assessment.
“It looks so open and wide,” he said. “It starts off not too bad but it gets rough when you start going down.”
Stacey Hickox, a trucker for Quality Carriers, agrees that Wolf Creek is dangerous for semi-trucks. “If you ask me, I’d rather do a route on Red Mountain than go over Wolf Creek,” Hickox said. “If I could possibly find my way around Wolf Creek without having to go over it, I won’t go over it.”
Pentek believes Red Mountain is intimidating to truckers because the chances of survival are slim for a crash on that pass. However, trucks are way more likely to use Wolf Creek, which has a far higher number of crashes.
“It’s a conduit for goods,” Pentek said. “It’s what ties into the Durango area. That’s what a lot of that truck traffic is doing, hauling goods over there.”
CDOT conducted a road safety audit last summer to identity potential issues and determine any improvements that could help. One recommendations was to increase signs on the pass, which would include more speed limit signs, more runaway track signs, and signs that show the grade of the decline.
The speed limit for westbound traffic varies from 25 to 45 mph, however commercial trucks must obey a 25 mph speed limit. CDOT believes more signs will help, as drivers who lose control of their rigs usually can’t read the signs while going that fast. “Just imagine going by those signs at 70 mph,” Pentek said.
There are two runaway truck ramps off the westbound lanes just before the hairpin curve, but they are scarcely used, according to Pentek. “Compared to the trucks that get wrecked, the runaway ramps don’t get used that much.”
Yager said that truck drivers aren’t trained to use runaway truck ramps, which could account for low useage.
Hickox said in his experience, the ramps are mainly for drivers who are inexperienced. He believes most truckers who use the ramps don’t adequately prepare for passes like Wolf Creek.
“You got these guys that come right out of school, they don’t have any experience,” Hickox said. “They’ve been with a trainer for two weeks and then they throw them behind the wheel.”
Pentek believes there is a perception among truckers that if they use a runaway ramp, they would face prosecution.
“That’s not the case. If you are in an emergency situation, and you have to take the runaway ramp, by all means take it. That’s what they’re there for,” Pentek said.
Truckers who use a runaway ramp must meet with the State Patrol and pay the cost of getting out.
“It’s not convenient by any means, but as opposed to the alternative, it’s definitely the best option,” Pentek said. “We’re trying to encourage them to make the right decision and take the runaway ramps as opposed to wrecking.”