By Seneca Flowers, Cowboy State Daily
The Lincoln Monument towers over Interstate 80 at the summit rest area just outside of Laramie. It’s the highest point along the 4,666-mile interstate at 8,640 feet.
From the summit, winter driving conditions go downhill either way you you travel in the state. To the west, the stretch wreaks so much havoc it has gained national notoriety since the road opened. To the east, the summit rises and twists to Vedauwoo and beyond. Those traveling near the monument know to tread the area carefully.
West of the summit, the Laramie to Walcott Junction interstate stretch opened in 1967. The selected 120-mile route went against the better judgement of area residents to appease the federal engineers who wanted to shave 19 miles off of the trip, according to historian John Waggener.
Winter weather conditions closed the road only four days after opening, earning the highway the nickname Waggener adopted for his book on Interstate 80 — the “Snow Chi Minh Trail.” The book documents the history of the interstate, along with its reputation for dangerous winter travel.
Waggener knew the infamous interstate’s reputation and wanted to know the deeper story beneath the asphalt. Through his research he learned that Wyoming locals wanted the interstate to follow existing U.S. Highway 30, but that didn’t align with national interests.
“In 1959, there was a debate on the Senate floor in Washington,” Waggener said. “The I-80 routing debate got so heated, it called for a special hearing.”
Locals fought to have the interstate placed near Highway 30. They knew the notorious weather of the region would be problematic. The wind that blows across the present highway between Laramie and Walcott Junction is compressed and strong. It collects snow and gains speed as it funnels through the mountains.
“The air moves from West to East — the path of least resistance,” Waggener said. “It moves fast. The winds clock over 100 mph. Eighty to 100 mph is not uncommon in that area.”
That wind and snow create the perfect recipe for disaster.
Wyoming Department of Transportation figures show 876 crashes caused by winter weather conditions occurred on the interstate in 2013 and 881 occurred in 2014. This year’s count is set at is at 667, but the year isn’t done yet.
On the east side of the pass, the weather also creates drama.
Barbara Sandick is an adjunct instructor at the University of Wyoming. She moved to region after living in the San Francisco Bay area. Commutes were, and still are, a way of life for her. Back in California, she would spend hours in gridlock. Now she can spend up to several hours just getting to Laramie on the winter weather susceptible interstate.
As a student and an instructor, she has commuted from Cheyenne to Laramie for about six years. During that time, she has seen the weather go from bad to unbearable on several occasions.
As dynamic as the stretch of road can be, she can sum it up pretty quickly.
“It’s treacherous,” she said.
Although the years have left her with countless incidents of white-knuckle driving conditions, she said the roads appear safer than when she first started commuting.
“The (Wyoming) Highway Patrol has gotten a lot better at closing the highway,” she said.
Patrol Lt. Kyle McKay has patrolled between Cheyenne and Laramie for about 15 years. Over the years, he has seen winter-related crash numbers decline.
When the roads are deemed impassable, the closures begin. Frequently, these highway condition reports come from patrol cars patrolling the interstates.
McKay said any combination of conditions, including road surface temperatures, high winds, low visibility and the types of snow, play into the decision-making process. McKay said it isn’t a decision that is made lightly.
“We understand the impact of commercial business and the economic impact of road closures,” he said.
He added that even though the public needs to travel from point A to point B, the patrol must ultimately consider the safety of the travelers first and foremost.
McKay said many drivers arriving at a closed interstate gate can be confused how the road would be closed when sometimes the weather appears nice at their location. He said there could be a couple of factors at play.
“A person is at exit 357 with a calm sunny day, but 30 miles down the road, the conditions can be bad,” he said.
Often, the person may not realize the severity of the situation. In some instances, crashes may block the entire road. This can create safety issues for the officials responding to the crash and motorists. The conditions may not be apparent to those stuck on the other side of the gates.
One of the most dangerous areas to drive along I-80 is on bridges.
“Early winter, the mixture of mist and fog creates black ice,” McKay said. “We get a lot of bridge deck crashes.”
McKay said bridges don’t have the earth directly beneath them, which allows them to cool faster than normal roadways. The Wyoming Transportation Department tries to monitor those conditions with gauges that can register the surface temperature of the interstate.
In addition to taking steps such as closing highways and using tools such as road temperatures gauges, there is another device that can help reduce crashes, McKay said —variable speed limit signs.
“I’ve seen a huge reduction in crashes because of the variable speed limit signs,” McKay said.
He cites the simplicity of physics for the effectiveness.
“The slower you are going, the less of an impact there will be,” he said.
Variable speeds limit signs, traffic alert signs stretching over the highway and a special kind of snow fences called “Wyoming Snow Fences,” were all created in the state to improve safety on Interstate 80, said Waggener.
“They were all developed on this stretch of road,” Waggener said.
These innovations were developed in part to remind people to slow down in bad weather. Experienced drivers recommend paying attention.
“I know, from witnessing so many accidents, you have to drive slow and be situationally aware,” Sandick said.
During the winter, she has seen vehicles involved in accidents line the edge of the snow-packed interstate. Some days, the number seems to just keep growing.
“I would say I’ve seen probably over 20 (in one drive),” she said.
And that is why she makes sure she drives prepared.
Sandick has learned to pack her pickup with all the essentials. Tow ropes, first aid kits, snowshoes, gloves, shovels, sleeping bags etc. If it can make a difference between life and death, she has it packed and ready to go.
Lt. McKay recommends the essentials: food, water, fuel and proper clothing. He said travelers need to stay in their vehicles and keep warm if they find themselves stranded on the highway. Use the fuel sparingly, and keep the car ventilated.
Despite all his preparation, McKay also said he has learned to expect the unexpected. He recommends other motorists do the same.