Grand County’s perception of Red Dirt Hill as dangerous not supported statistically

Tonya Bina
Sky-Hi Daily News
Traffic moves along U.S. Highway 40 on Red Dirt Hill.
Byron Hetzler/Archive photo

Even though it is considered the Achilles heel of Grand County roadways, “Red Dirt is not inherently a dangerous road,” says Sheriff Rod Johnson.

This curve-filled section of road has been the scene of a number of accidents, even deaths.

Local knowledge instructs drivers to take heed when entering Granby’s periphery.

“It’s a treacherous stretch of road for someone not from here,” Johnson said.

But Johnson blames elevation, saying the ascent is just high enough to freeze that stretch of Highway 40.

“The road is not badly engineered, it’s a good road,” Johnson said. Before traveling into the Red Dirt zone, considered to be mile marker 217 to 221, there is little warning of a possible upcoming change in road conditions from a slight elevation change. A similar, more expected phenomenon occurs when going over mountain passes, such as Berthoud.

The sheriff says about twice a year he’s seen rain in the Valley and snow on Red Dirt.

Perhaps this is the reason the Red Dirt section has been rated Grand County’s most dangerous section of road in an informal survey on the Sky-Hi Daily News Web page.

In spite of Red Dirt’s engineered turning and passing lanes, high profile accidents have made it notoriously sketchy, perhaps due to its lack of guard rails and the speed of motorists.

But thus far, that stretch of road has brought little cause for worry in the eyes of the Colorado Department of Transportation.

The state’s official safety rating of roadways, called the Weighted Hazard Index, compares Red Dirt to similar stretches of two-lane rural highways throughout Colorado. With zero being average, Red Dirt Hill has a .62 rating, meaning it is near smack-dab average in terms of safety concerns.

A number much greater than zero would bring cause for alarm, according to CDOT spokeswoman Nancy Shanks.

But CDOT’s statistics are dated due to a two year lapse in obtaining numbers from the Colorado State Patrol, plus further delay in entering them into the CDOT database.

From Jan. 1, 2000, to April 22, 2004, the most recent CDOT data available, there were a total of 107 reported accidents on that particular stretch of road.

The data fails to include two deaths and other accidents that have occurred on that same stretch from 2004 to 2008, which have the possibility to change Red Dirt’s Weighted Hazard Index rating.

“Does the data paint an entire picture? No, probably not,” Shanks said. “But it paints a four-year period within those mile markers.”

Efforts to obtain updated information from the Colorado State Patrol were unsuccessful by deadline, but Sgt. Gary Meirose of the Granby office does not believe more current statistics would change CDOT’s rating.

Ratings consider circumstances, such as the volume of traffic on highways, the severity of the roadway and their ever-changing conditions in addition to straight numbers of incidences.

“It’s one of those deals where the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Meirose said.

Each fatality on that stretch, estimated to be three in the past 10 years, puts the road in the forefront of people’s minds, he said. “But it’s not really any different than any other road in the county.”

From 2000 to 2004, out of the 107 accidents, 78 were property damage only, 28 were accidents involving injury and one was a fatality.

Of those accidents, 28, or 26 percent, were caused by wild animals.

“That’s not low, but we do have stretches that are up to 65 percent,” Shanks said.

A total of 14 of the 107 accidents resulted in one or more cars overturning, eight were caused by rear-ending, three were head-ons, nine were side-swipes and 34 were caused by hitting a fixed object.

Half of the accidents occurred while driving on dry-road conditions.

As many as 13 happened with snow, 18 happened on ice, eight with slushy conditions and three with wet road conditions.

As far as weather conditions, 76 accidents occurred when there were clear skies, 29 happened during snow, sleet or hail, and 59 during day-time versus nighttime.

The most accidents, 83 of them, involved only one vehicle; 51 were on-road and 56 were off-road.

To induce a traffic study that would analyze the safety of a particular stretch of road, Shanks said, statistics would indicate that there are reoccurring factors that lead to the cause of accidents.

Roads that show a high Weighted Hazard Index, for example, may call for improvements such as further sight distances or smoothed corners.

“It’s fair to note, we only have up to 2004 statistics,” Shanks said, “and if more recent stats point in another direction, it’s fair to look at that.”

But for now, in CDOT’s view, Red Dirt shows that it is no better nor worse than any similar stretch of highway ” in spite of its reputation.

” Tonya Bina can be reached at 887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail

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