Here’s a challenge: Drive through McElmo Canyon at the speed limit. Go ahead, try it. Motor along at 40 mph down County Road G, which offers the shortest route from Cortez to Utah’s Aneth, Montezuma Creek, and Bluff.
Odds are you’ll be tailgated, yelled at, flipped off, and passed on the double yellow. And the folks who do it would probably argue that you’re the problem for going too slow.
Drivers everywhere like to speed, and in rural Western areas where it’s a long way to anywhere, motorists are especially lead-footed.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 38 percent of all fatal crashes in Colorado in 2004 were speed-related. That compares to a national average of 30 percent. The percentage of speed-related fatal crashes for the other Four Corners states in 2004 was 36 percent in New Mexico, 34 in Arizona, and 28 in Utah.
Does everyone speed?
“If anybody tells you they don’t speed, they’re lying,” said Montezuma County Commissioner Dewayne Findley, who admits that he exceeds the limit upon occasion himself, though not as he did back in the days of the 55 mph limit.
“That infuriated me,” he said. “I probably drove 15 to 20 miles over the limit. I had a fuzz-buster. Now 65 seems fast enough and I don’t speed excessively, maybe every once in a while when I’m in a hurry.”
“Speed?! Me?! Never!” responded state Rep. Mark Larson (R-Cortez) via e-mail when asked if rural legislators are prone to zipping around the state. Then he conceded, “Okay, maybe occasionally. While I appreciate the nexus between legislative or elective service and the potential need to exceed posted speed limits, that is never an excuse to break the law.
“I do occasionally get behind by scheduling myself too tightly at events and as a result, have been issued a citation or two. And that is as it should be. Generally I do slow down for awhile but human nature being what it is, the further away in time that I get from the citation incident, the easier is it to forget and be sucked into the current events and how late I am. Vaaaarrrooooom!”
But while a great many citizens speed, many of the same people become irate when drivers zoom past their houses or exceed the limit by more than they themselves are doing. Complaints about speeders are one of the issues most likely to set the phones ringing in local sheriff’s offices.
“Speed is definitely a problem, especially on some of these roads south of Dove Creek where there’s a straight stretch of 6 or 7 miles,” said Dolores County Sheriff Jerry Martin. “It seems like the better the job the Road and Bridge department does, the faster the public wants to go.”
“I get a lot of calls about traffic, about various roads where people want us to crack down,” agreed Montezuma County Sheriff Gerald Wallace.
But cracking down isn’t easy for rural sheriff’s departments already struggling to keep up with methamphetamine abuse, domestic violence, burglaries and other crimes.
“We don’t have a lot of time to deal with traffic,” Wallace said. “Our No. 1 priority is crimes against people. No. 2 is crimes against property. Traffic is No. 3.
“If we were a bigger agency we would have people assigned to traffic in particular hot spots across the county. But as the county grows, we’re seeing more calls for service.” It’s difficult to find time to stake out county roads and catch speeders, he said, although his officers do it when they can.
But is excessive speed really as much of a problem as safety advocates maintain? There are skeptics who argue vociferously that the real problem isn’t speed, it’s poorly engineered roads and bad drivers.
From 1995 to 1999, the state of Montana had no daytime speed limit on its interstate highways, only what was “reasonable and prudent.” Until last November, drivers in the freewheeling state could also carry open containers of alcohol.
Pressure from the federal government forced Montana to implement speed limits and ban open containers, but the state has seen no corresponding drop in fatal accidents, according to the National Motorists Association, which advocates for “the rights and interests of North American motorists.”
In Germany, about half of the famed Autobahn highway system has no set speed limit, though there is a recommended speed of 130 kilometers per hour (81 mph). Despite the high speeds, accident, injury, and death rates are low, according to information on the Internet. Injury accidents on the Autobahn amount to about 6 percent of all injury accidents and less than 12 percent of traffic fatalities in the country, even though the system carries a third of all Germany’s traffic.
But the Autobahn is superbly designed and maintained. It has three or four lanes in each direction, a central median, long acceleration and deceleration lanes, gentle curves, and wildlife-protection fencing.
Drivers are strictly prohibited from passing on the right or staying in the left lane longer than necessary to pass. There are rules spelling out how to behave in traffic jams or accidents, and running out of gas is illegal.
In the Four Corners and the rural West, most county roads and state highways are nowhere near as wide, smooth, well-designed or well-regulated.
“We don’t have any Autobahns out here,” Wallace said.
But, he added, “I would agree with some of these articles that speed itself isn’t a nail in the coffin. It’s a combination of factors — speed, alcohol, young drivers, people talking on cell phones. If you have an experienced driver wearing a seat belt, paying attention, on a good road, the only vehicle, and he’s speeding, that may not be enough to put him in a bad situation.
But the more factors you put into the equation, the more of a problem it will be.”
Rural road hazards
Speeding also ties in with other dangerous traffic offenses, Wallace said. “People become impatient and get up behind a slower car and that leads to passing when you shouldn’t, passing on the shoulder, things like that,” he said.
Martin agrees that excessive speed is a serious concern. He said rural roads offer a number of special hazards. “Excessive speed, say 10 to 20 miles over the limit, is a problem, especially for farming areas where there is equipment on the road,” Martin said. “All the way from Monticello to Cortez is an agricultural area, and here in another month we’ll have wide equipment on the roads. People who are speeding don’t anticipate these slow-moving farm vehicles.”
Martin said that’s why the Dolores County Sheriff’s Department patrols for speed during the spring more than any other time. “To me it’s just a life-threatening factor,” he said.
Another common obstacle on rural roads is wildlife. Deer, elk, coyotes, and of course domestic dogs and cats can dart into the lane of travel without warning. Dawn and dusk are especially dangerous times to speed, because of all the animal activity.
“Deer and elk can jump out in front of you so quick,” Wallace said. “And at night, if you’re speeding, you can be out-driving your headlights.
“One of the safest things you can practice is role-playing. Imagine what would happen if an animal ran out in front of you right then.”
Collisions involving animals aren’t usually fatal to the humans involved, but they can be. Two men from Cortez died the night of Sept. 13, 2005, when their car struck a deer on U.S. Highway 160. Neither was wearing a seat belt.
Speed regularly crops up as a factor in serious accidents. On June 12, 2005, a 21-year-old Dolores man speeding over 100 mph on the town’s Railroad Avenue died when his motorcycle struck a utility pole after he had been swerving around other traffic.
And in one of the most devastating crashes in the past few years, three area residents died in the early morning hours of Feb. 20, 2005, when their pickup rolled while speeding down the McElmo Canyon Road near the Utah border. Weather and alcohol were also believed to be factors.
14 horse trailers
Speed is always an issue in McElmo Canyon. The narrow county road stretches 25 miles from U.S. Highway 491 west to the Utah border and beyond. Until the mid-1990s, half of the road was gravel and no one could go very fast over the bone-jarring bumps. When it was finally chipsealed, the volume of traffic soared, and so did speed.
Drivers love to whip around the serpentine curves like stars in a car commercial. But the canyon offers a plethora of hazards: potholes, tight turns, residential driveways, loose dogs, cyclists and occasional cattle drives. Shoulders are virtually nonexistent on the narrow road, and there are several steep drop-offs. Accidents occur frequently.
Susan Thomas, who lives off the McElmo Road near the Sand Canyon trailhead, can attest to the dangers. While she was backing out of her driveway onto the road Oct. 22, 2005, another vehicle smashed into hers. Although the second vehicle was traveling somewhat over the speed limit, Thomas said, speed wasn’t considered the main cause of the accident.
Regardless, the crash sent Thomas to the hospital for seven weeks. Her pelvis was broken in four places, along with vertebrae in her neck, and nearly all her ribs. She has mostly recovered and is walking, but she was left with permanent damage to her eyesight.
She believes the 40-mph speed limit should be even lower along the road past Sand Canyon and Battle Rock Charter School a few miles away. “It’s a unique stretch,” she said. “There are a number of smaller properties, there’s a dangerous curve right before the school, and there’s actually pedestrian traffic on the road.”
In addition, the trailhead draws heavy traffic. “One day I saw 14 horse trailers at Sand Canyon,” Thomas said. “They don’t come out of that parking lot very fast. It would really make sense to enforce the 40 (miles per hour) and even have a zone that was 30.”
Slapping on chip-seal
But lowering speed limits means nothing if drivers don’t obey them. Most drivers travel at the highest speed they think conditions will allow. Studies have shown that they simply disregard limits that seem artificially low, say, if a municipal speed limit is extended too far outside town.
“We have tried to make the limits on county roads a little more realistic,” Wallace said. “Some were 30 mph and we raised them to 40.” An example was Road L from Highway 145 to Road 25, the Lebanon Road. “If the speed sign is not realistic to the area and the traffic flow, people are not going to obey it.”
The National Motorists Association maintains that speed limits should be set at the 85th percentile — the speed at which only 15 percent of drivers are going faster. The safest drivers are those traveling around that number, the group says; the very fastest and very slowest are believed to be more dangerous drivers because they are reckless or lack confidence, respectively.
Where a speed limit has to be low because of traffic hazards such as pedestrians, experts say, better signs and other visual cues as well as engineering measures can slow traffic. Such measures include speed humps (slightly raised pavement), raised medians, and “bulb-outs” — curb extensions at intersections that reduce the travel-lane width.
But those measures are more suited to municipal areas, and most rural counties don’t have the funds to reengineer their roads anyway. When a gravel county road in Montezuma or Dolores counties is paved, usually it’s done in the cheapest way possible, by slapping on three layers of chip-seal. Shoulders typically aren’t widened and curves aren’t straightened.
Montezuma County’s Findley said there was great concern when the McElmo Road was chip-sealed that “they were probably going to kill people” because the curves weren’t going to be straightened much, but that accidents haven’t soared as feared.
Now that the county is planning to chip-seal the 26-mile Hovenweep Road, some citizens have voiced concerns about speed and safety there. Findley said the commissioners looked at the road and agree that Road BB off Highway 491 is quite narrow, but after that 5-mile stretch, people turn onto Road 10, and it widens out.
Besides, he said, chip-sealed roads can be safer than gravel because drivers stay in their lanes when the road is striped. “If it’s a gravel road it turns into a three-track, everybody running down the middle,” he said.
Still, Findley acknowledged that chip-sealing promotes the petal-to-themetal problem. “Any time you chipseal they’re going to drive 60 mph.”
He mentioned a different concern about speed, specifically related to gravel roads.
“It creates greater wear and tear,” he said. “The rocks are flying and we lose the surface. If the roads are rough, people complain like crazy, but they drive slower. If the roads are graded and smooth, they drive faster and the roads deteriorate faster. It’s a vicious circle.”
Respect for others
Driving faster than necessary has other drawbacks. One is noise.
Thomas said although her house in McElmo Canyon is built of stone, traffic noise is constant. “I hear it and I’ve had people come and stay overnight in the front room and the noise is substantial,” she said.
In addition to passenger cars and pickups, giant trucks carrying carbon dioxide or oil from the CO2 and Aneth fields rumble along the road constantly.
“If they were all driving 40 it would be quieter,” Thomas said.
Speeding also burns more fuel and creates more pollution, but few motorists seem troubled by such things.
Wallace said when speeders are stopped, some of their excuses are, “I didn’t realize how fast I was going”; “I’ve sped this way all my life and it’s been fine”; and even the puzzling, “I was running out of gas and I needed to get to the station quicker.”
Martin said the excuses he usually hears are, “I didn’t realize how fast I was going”; “My speedometer must be off”; and “I didn’t realize the limit had dropped to 65.” (The latter is voiced by people coming from I-70 or I-40.)
Whatever their rationalizations for driving fast, many rural motorists will continue to do so, and harried and under-staffed sheriff’s offices and Colorado state troopers (none of whom could be reached to comment for this story) will attempt to keep roads and highways safe.
“We’re not out there as a punishing tool,” Wallace said. “We’re out there to correct behaviors.” How likely an offender is to receive a speeding ticket depends partly on whether that person seems likely to speed again, he said.
He pleaded with the public to be considerate of the houses and farms they are speeding by. “People need to have respect for other people,” he said. “Treat them the way you’d want to be treated if you lived in that last house you just sped by where you nearly took out their mailbox.”