ASPEN - For commuters to and from Aspen, last week's snowfall might not have been the only thing slowing them down.
The Pitkin County Sheriff's Office implemented pace-car operations on Jan. 28, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday on portions of Highway 82. It was all part of an experiment in which deputies drive patrol vehicles on the more dangerous sections of Highway 82 when bad driving conditions exist.
Undersheriff Ron Ryan said the so-called pacer vehicles straddle either the eastbound or westbound lanes' center line and travel at what the deputies consider a safe speed, which generally is 10 mph slower than the posted speed limit on Highway 82.
"The goal is to minimize speed, to minimize traffic accidents and minimize the time deputies have to investigate these accidents," Ryan said.
When a winter-storm warning is in effect, deputies arrive an hour early to their day or evening shifts to prepare to pace, Ryan said.
"The deputies will stage a few of their cars (on Highway 82), and they'll take turns," he said. "They'll put their lights up initially, straddle the center lane, and they'll go at a particular speed."
During the 2011-12 winter season, the Colorado Department of Transportation frequently enlisted police pace cars for the purpose of what it called "speed harmonization" on Interstate 70 during snowy weather.
The program was abandoned, said CDOT spokeswoman Mindy Krane, because "we really didn't have enough supporting data to show whether it was working or not. The data really didn't show, in terms of travel times, whether it was making an improvement."
Ryan said it's too early to tell if the Sheriff's Office pace-car experiment is having the desired effect of making rush-hour commutes safer when the road conditions are dangerous.
"It's going to be a long time before anybody can say with certainty what type of impact it's having," he said. "This is going to be experimental for some time, and we're not going to have enough data unless we do this for enough seasons."
Ryan said the pacing experiment has not been without critics.
"Most of the negative feedback tends to be more inquisitive in nature than anything else. They're asking why the deputy was going so slow and slowing everybody else down," Ryan said. "Some people are irritated, and there is some concern about slowing traffic."
In Pitkin County, the most dangerous sections of Highway 82, at least when inclement weather blows into the area, is the 10-mile stretch between Lazy Glen and Brush Creek Road. In that stretch is Snowmass Canyon, which runs between the Old Snowmass Conoco and Aspen Village. Ryan and other deputies consider that one of the more accident-prone areas where the pace-cars have been operating.
The undersheriff said the pace cars, depending on the road conditions, aren't necessarily trying to slow motorists down during the rush hour.
"It's an attempt to get them to go at a safe and prudent speed when the road conditions are hazardous," he said.
For now, deputies will only pace traffic during peak traffic times in the early mornings and late afternoons, Ryan said.