The highway conditions early on Saturday morning were absolutely horrific. During a commute from the Ken-Caryl Ranch area to Denver International Airport between 5:30 a.m. and 7:15 a.m., I saw at least two dozen vehicles that had crashed, gotten stuck after sliding off the road, etc. Tow trucks and police vehicles were in abundant supply, too, especially along I-225, where part of the highway was closed due to amateur demolition derbying.
And Colorado Department of Transportation vehicles trying to improve driving conditions? They were in very short supply. Peña Boulevard had clearly been treated. But all the rest of the asphalt I saw in a 45-minute journey that took over an hour and a half seemed like virgin territory.
Did CDOT simply botch the first big storm of the season?
Spokeswoman Mindy Crane says "no." She concedes that the roads were in rough shape due to the storm's unusual (for Colorado) nature. But she swears CDOT did all it could to ease travelers' woes -- and suggests that drivers were to blame for most of the grimness that followed. "We saw motorists driving way too fast for conditions," she maintains. "You could tell people weren't prepared for the winter weather. That obviously leads to a lot of unnecessary accidents."
No doubt: We saw one guy blow past us on I-25, only to do a terrifying spin from the fast lane to the right shoulder half a mile ahead; only the light volume prevented a smash-up of epic proportions. But did CDOT cut back on treating the roads after misinterpreting a forecast that actually proved accurate? Attempt to take it easy on the budget by rationing the response? React modestly because it was a Saturday, as opposed to a weekday?
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None of the above, Crane insists: "I talked to our supervisors, as well as a few of our drivers, and they all say we were out in full force. But it was kind of a unique storm for Colorado, in that it was more of an ice storm than anything. The temperatures were very cold, but there was very little precipitation -- and when there's not much moisture on the road, we can't use our liquid deicers, because the product makes the ice wet and causes even slicker conditions." Hence, CDOT's options were severely limited. Pretty much all workers could use was so-called ice slicer, which "almost looks like sand, but it's got forms of a magneisum chloride element," Crane goes on.
Okay, fine -- but how come I observed little or no evidence of this stuff on the highways, let alone vehicles laying it down? Happenstance, Crane believes. "We've got a lot of ground to cover in the metro area," she says. "If people don't necessarily see the plows out, they're probably not where you are at that moment."
These explanations aside, Crane doesn't declare CDOT's performance to have been flawless. "We definitely have room to improve," she acknowledges. But at the same time, she says, "We need to remind people that they need to get into a different mind-frame for winter conditions. They need to slow down, and if a roadway just looks wet, it could be ice. And a lot of people didn't realize that this weekend."
Bet that doesn't make the driver whose truck wound up straddling a C-470 guard rail feel any better.