State to try infrared light beams for safety

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"Wildlife in many areas of Colorado is the No. 1 cause of accidents on highways," said Nancy Shanks, CDOT public relations spokeswoman.

That might change if CDOT's experimental program is successful.

This is how the system would work. Reflectors will be installed on Highway 40 between Craig and Steamboat Springs where CDOT has identified high deer traffic areas. The headlights of approaching vehicles will activate 6-inch by 2-inch reflectors that in turn will disperse an infrared light pattern across the road, said Jim Nall, a CDOT engineer working on the project.

Drivers will be unable to see the light, but it will be visible to deer and elk. The hope is wildlife will be disturbed by the strange light patterns and stay off the road as long as the pattern and any vehicles are present, Nall said.

"When the vehicle is gone, the light pattern collapses, and the animals can go freely on their way," he said.

The project is in its infancy, Nall said. The goal is to have a system in place between October and December, when the majority of vehicle-animal collisions occur in Colorado.

The Austrian company Swareflex develops and sells the kind of reflector products CDOT would use to implement the project. On its Web site, Swareflex says its wildlife warning reflectors significantly reduce animal-vehicle collisions while maintaining natural wildlife travel patterns.

This is the first time such an infrared light program has been tried in Colorado. Other states have tried such programs with varying degrees of success, Nall said.

Nall is directing a sister project on Highway 550 between Montrose and Colona. While the U.S. 40 project aims to affect animal behavior, the Highway 550 project attempts to affect driver behavior through the intensive use of signs and lights, speed limit changes and radio messages.

The two pilot programs come with a combined price tag of $450,000, Shanks said.

Julia Kintsch, program director of the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project, is working with CDOT to create wildlife linkages across Colorado's 85,000 miles of roads.

The Ecosystem Project held a meeting in Meeker on Wednesday night to discuss wildlife crossings in Northwest Colorado. The reflector program isn't part of the CDOT-Ecosystem Project partnership, but Kintsch said the project reflects the sort of work she hopes to achieve through the agencies' joint work.

"That kind of solution is one of many in the toolbox we can use to make roads safer for wildlife as well as humans," Kintsch said.

However, Kintsch said her concern would be the effect the Highway 40 project has on other wildlife crossings. The goal of the linkage project is to determine major wildlife routes on a statewide scale and create alternative routes so highways don't separate animals from their habitat.

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