Caught in the headlights | AspenTimes.com

Caught in the headlights

The organizers of a statewide campaign to boost drivers’ wariness of wildlife on Colorado roads identified Highway 82 as one of the most hazardous routes in the state Tuesday.Between 1993 and 2003, there were 632 reported collisions between wildlife and vehicles on Highway 82, according to Monique DiGiorgio, executive director of the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project, which is heading the awareness campaign. There were 46 injuries reported in those crashes, although the research didn’t indicate any fatalities, she said.That unfortunately changed this fall. Julian Gonzalez-Santillan of Carbondale was killed Nov. 4 when the car he was in swerved to miss an injured deer and rolled. He died on the scene. The accident occurred on westbound Highway 82 near Aspen Glen.DiGiorgio said 586 reported crashes on Highway 82 between 1993 and 2003 involved property damage only. There were 114 deer and 26 elk killed in those crashes. The wildlife species wasn’t listed in the remaining crashes. Some involved black bear and, in at least one case, a mountain lion.The carnage from those types of wrecks has been highly visible this fall. Deer carcasses have littered the shoulder of Highway 82 in Snowmass Canyon, Emma and scattered locations farther downvalley.DiGiorgio said Highway 133 in the Crystal River Valley is also a hazardous stretch, but not as bad as Highway 82. One explanation may be the lower level of traffic.Statistics show significantly fewer reported vehicle collisions with wildlife on Highway 133 over the past 11 years. From 1993 through 2003 there were 103 reported accidents with 16 injuries and 87 with property damage only. Thirty-three deer were killed along with nine elk and two bears.The state patrol suspects that two women may have been killed on Highway 133 on Oct. 24 when they apparently swerved to miss deer on the road. Melissa Hasperue and Ann Eaker were killed when they were ejected as their vehicle flipped into the Crystal River. There were no witnesses but the state patrol reported numerous signs of deer on and along the highway.The Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project is teaming with the Colorado State Patrol, the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and a regional insurance association to try to reduce wildlife-vehicle accidents. The campaign is called Colorado Wildlife on the Move.The federal highway agency funded the nonprofit environmental group’s study of more than 100 major routes that link major wildlife habitats. Those linkages often intersect with highways and other roads, so understanding where they are is critical in the effort to reduce vehicle collisions with wildlife, DiGiorgio explained.The entire lower section of Highway 82 is considered to be one of those critical linkages. “There is a very high safety risk in that area,” DiGiorgio said.The Roaring Fork’s artery was found to be among the eight most hazardous stretches of road in the state. Another hazardous stretch in the region was Interstate 70 near Eagle.The state transportation department’s data shows that more traffic crashes involving wildlife happen in November than any other month, with December being the next highest. From 1993 through 2003 there were 3,444 crashes statewide in November alone and 2,355 in December.Over that 11-year period, there were 23 fatalities from vehicle-wildlife collisions in Colorado. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that there are 200 deaths nationwide annually from vehicle-wildlife collisions.Even when there aren’t fatalities or injuries, the accidents are costly. The Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association estimated that the average cost per claim involving an accident with wildlife is $2,000.DiGiorgio said to reduce crashes, the coalition plans to distribute 10,000 driver safety tip sheets throughout the state and to hang posters in strategic locations such as U.S. Forest Service visitor offices.The top tip is to slow down and stay alert, particularly between dusk and dawn. A driver who sees one deer or elk should be on the look out for others.A driver who encounters big game on the highway needs to concentrate on keeping control before, during and after a collision.”A major message there is not to swerve but to brake instead,” said DiGiorgio.Capt. Kris Meredith of the Colorado State Patrol said swerving may cause a more serious accident. “Regretfully the safest alternative may be hitting the animal,” she said.More information on the Colorado Wildlife on the Move program can be found on the Internet at http://www.RestoreTheRockies.org.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com