Runaway truck ramps near Silverthorne are the most frequently used in the state
For those of us who live among the winding and often steeply graded roadways of the Rocky Mountains, seeing passenger vehicles spun out in the snow or semitrucks pulled over to the side of the road while drivers strap on chains are frequent sights.
For most, winter is the most treacherous time of the year on Summit County’s roads. But in the summer, as the sun pounds against the blacktop on Interstate 70, truckers traveling through the corridor face other perilous challenges: speed and heat.
Colorado’s truck ramps made news late last month after a truck descending from the mountains crashed into the back of stopped traffic near Denver West Parkway, killing four. The driver, Rogel Aguilera-Mederos, who allegedly chose not to use a runaway ramp, was charged with 40 counts, including four counts of vehicular homicide as a result of the crash. Just a day later, a video captured by Jesse Terrell of a smoking truck rocketing up a ramp near Silverthorne began making the rounds on social media.
While the use of the runaway truck ramps may seem somewhat rare, even for those who travel I-70 often, officials say they’re more common than we might think.
“The latest figures that we have show that (truck ramps) have been used at least 57 times since 2016, according to Colorado State Patrol Reports,” said Tamara Rollison, a communications manager with the Colorado Department of Transportation. “Though that doesn’t reflect all the usage, or all the times we’ve observed trucks on the ramps.”
Rollison said that of the 13 runaway ramps in the state, the two most frequently used are on westbound I-70 on the west side of the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels, at mile posts 209 and 212 just outside of Silverthorne.
“They’re actually used quite frequently year-round, but obviously more in the summer,” said Colin Remillard, a spokesman with the Colorado State Patrol. “I’d say in the middle of the summer, when it’s hot, sometimes we see it multiple times a week. I’ve even been in the ramp dealing with a truck when another one comes in.”
Remillard said that while some trucks make their way onto the ramps due to mechanical failures, a vast majority of truckers using the ramps have brakes that overheat due to the temperature on roads and friction caused by excessive braking.
“Usually what they’re supposed to be doing is coming out of the tunnel down multiple gears, and only use the brakes occasionally,” Remillard said. “A lot of these truckers don’t drive around here frequently, so they just keep holding the brakes or pumping them … once they burn up the brakes, they can’t stop and they keep picking up speed.”
While passenger vehicles have a 60 mph speed limit coming out of the tunnel, semitruck drivers are only allowed to go 35 mph. Though Remillard said that drivers are constantly exceeding that limit, in large part because many aren’t experienced driving the area, they’re following the speed limits on their GPS devices and aren’t prepared for the drop in elevation on the west side of the tunnel.
“Especially in warm weather, troopers up here can stop trucks going over that limit all day long,” said Remillard. “And I think despite the fact that there’s signs in the tunnel it does take some by surprise. People get going way too fast, and they come out of Denver where the whole way is up. I don’t think they’re prepared for it.”
Both Remillard and Rollison noted that runaway truck ramps — built from heavy gravel — are very effective in stopping a truck in their tracks, and neither could recall any instances of major injuries or fatalities occurring on a ramp. Remillard noted that it’s also exceedingly rare for a driver to receive a citation for using the ramp, as officials don’t want to dissuade the use of safety precautions.
Still there are some repercussions. Remillard said on top of towing costs — from miniscule to as much as $30,000 if it’s up high, jackknifed and pinned against the ramp — using the ramp may also affect the company’s federal safety rating, impacting issues surrounding insurance and regulations. But compared to the alternative, runaway truck ramps are an excellent escape option for truck drivers.
CDOT offers a number of resources to help truck drivers prepare for driving in the mountains, including a dedicated page on COTrip.org to educate truckers, and a Colorado Truck Parking Guide, which outlines safety standards and maps runaway truck ramps.
“They’re really essential,” said Remillard. “These trucks are very heavy, dangerous weapons. And a lot of people ignore the signs. But they’re there for a reason. Most of the truckers are pretty good about it, and when they’re really out of control they end up taking a runaway ramp. It works, but when it isn’t used the results can be catastrophic.”
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