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Stretch of I-70 has deadly legacy

Published July 14, 2007 at midnight

The treacherous downhill stretch of I-70 where a trucker died in a fiery crash Wednesday night has a deadly legacy, but a driver-awareness campaign has improved safety.

The driver, identified today as Darrell Gaylor, 51, of West Valley, Utah, died not far from the notorious "Dead Man's Curve" at the mouth of Mount Vernon Canyon.

From 1980 through 1989, big trucks were involved in 11 crashes that resulted in 16 deaths, according to state statistics.

A prime example of the snaking highway's gruesome history was a 1989 wreck where a truck lost its brakes and careened into six cars.

The wreck killed two people, injured seven others, and killed 33 horses the trucker was hauling to a slaughter house.

But safety improved after the Colorado Department of Transportation installed 37 signs warning eastbound drivers "don't be fooled" by the deceptively mild grade and curve that precede the precipitous drop. The agency employed other trucker education campaigns.

The program has cut in half fatalities even as traffic volume grows.

There were seven fatal heavy truck or bus crashes totalling eight deaths on that eastbound I-70 stretch between 1995 and 2005, despite a 19 percent jump in traffic volume during that period.

"Certainly with all of the technology and the safety improvements we've included, safety definitely has improved," said Mindy Crane, a CDOT spokeswoman. "But it's always going to be a challenge for us as traffic volumes increase and we have to fight more congestion."

Since the late 1990s, CDOT has used a cutting-edge system of sensors and electronic signs to slow down truckers rolling downhill on I-70 west of the Eisenhower Tunnel.

The computerized system of road sensors gauges whether a big rig is descending too fast and flashes a message on a road sign with warnings like: "Your Speed is 64 ... Slow Down Now."

The warning system cut truck accidents by 13 percent and reduced runaway ramp use by 24 percent in two years, according to a 1999 University of Colorado study.

The gory lore of "Dead Man's Curve"

  • 1970 to early 1979 — More than 200 crashes occur on the steep stretch of highway through Mount Vernon Canyon, which includes the sharp downhill turn called Dead Man's Curve.
  • June 29, 1979 — Runaway-truck escape ramp opens just west of Dead Man's Curve.
  • Late summer 1979 — Truck driver doesn't use new escape ramp, dies in accident downhill from the ramp.
  • June 29, 1979 through August 1985 — 74 truck drivers use the 2,000-foot- long escape ramp; state says only one other ramp in the state has been used more often.
  • 1981 to Jan. 8, 1986 — 36 truck crashes occur in Mount Vernon Canyon, killing 12 people and injuring 41. --1985 — Country balladeer C.W. McCall of Ouray donates his time to narrate Getting Down Alive, a $16,300 Colorado Division of Highway Safety video to warn truckers about the steep grades along I-70 between Downieville, six miles west of Idaho Springs, and the Morrison exit. The video is shown to truckers at the Downieville weigh-and check station on eastbound I-70.
  • Feb. 19, 1983 — Trucker Preston Riley Jr. is driving a tractor-trailer east on I-70 when the vehicle malfunctions. He tries to use the escape ramp, but can't because a vehicle is stopped in its entrance. His truck goes out of control, strikes a concrete retaining wall, rolls over the wall and down a steep embankment. He dies.
  • July 22, 1985 — A truck driver is killed and a passenger injured after a tractor-trailer goes out of control on I-70 east of Lookout Mountain and crashes into the rear of a car. No one in the car is reported injured. The truck misses the escape ramp, slams into rear of car and flips over.
  • January 1986 to January 1987 — No truck crashes occur in Mount Vernon Canyon, but six rigs use the escape ramp.
  • March 22, 1988 — A tractor-trailer goes out of control near the Lookout Mountain exit. The truck, driven by Leroy Lee of Denver, strikes the rear of a car driven by William Treischel of Evergreen. Both vehicles veer off the road and into the median. The truck rolls onto its left side, then rights itself. The car flips onto its roof. Lee and a passenger are injured. Treischel, who is wearing a seat belt, suffers minor cuts.
  • Aug. 26, 1988 — A truck driver careening out of control at speeds up to 100 mph rumbles down the steep Dead Man's Curve, near Morrison, overtaking and crushing a Toyota Camry with four occupants. Three women from Boulder are killed in the crash.

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