Steer clear of deer: CDOT testing lower speed limits

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Stephanie Jeffcoat is seeing fewer dead animals on Colorado Highway 13 since a nighttime speed limit reduction was imposed on the road this spring.

The Hamilton woman, who travels the road as many as five times a week, thinks the lowered speed limit, from 65 mph to 55 mph, is keeping vehicle versus wildlife accidents at bay.

"I used to say they needed to lower the speed limit," Jeffcoat said. "I think it's a great thing. I was really happy when they wanted to try it out."

The lower speed limit from Rifle to Baggs has meant fewer accidents, said Capt. Brett Williams of the Colorado State Patrol.

From May to July, 26 accidents were reported in the highway's stretch between Craig and the Rio Blanco County line. That's down from the 40 accidents recorded in the same stretch and time last year, Williams said.

"I thought it would make a difference, but I was surprised by the results," he said. "It's ironic because there's more traffic in the area."

Traffic has increased on the road with an influx of activity from oil and gas production in the area, the patrol said. Annual traffic on the highway south of Hamilton was estimated at 1,600 vehicles a day in 2004. But that is expected to increase to 1,739 vehicles a day by 2010, according to a Web site by the Colorado Department of Transportation.

A lowered speed limit on Highway 13 is one of three projects CDOT is testing to determine ways to reduce crashes.

Another example is wildlife reflectors installed on eight miles of U.S. Highway 40 between Craig and Hayden. About 1,000 reflectors were installed in February. The idea is to trick wildlife into thinking there is a fence when headlights shine on the reflectors at a 45-degree angle. The fence keeps wildlife from jumping into the road.

A true depiction of the effectiveness of the reflectors won't be available for about three years, CDOT spokeswoman Nancy Shanks said.

"We don't have the stats to back up whether it's working yet or not," she said. "You really can't statistically compare the results after one season."

CDOT supervisor Les Anderson said it's difficult to determine whether the reflectors are keeping wildlife off the roadway. He estimates his crews pull about four dead deer a week off the roadway. That's about on par with years past.

Anderson said one motorist reported that a deer caught in the light of the reflectors didn't know which way to run. Another motorist claimed light from the reflectors seemed to freeze a deer on the roadway, Anderson said.

"I couldn't really tell you how it's working," he said.

Shanks said the state's third project -- a lighted message sign warning motorists of wildlife between Montrose and Ridgeway -- is being compared to projects on Highway 13 and U.S. 40. The projects are intended to determine whether it's more effective to alter the habits of motorists or wildlife, Shanks said.

Jeffcoat said motorists slowing down at night seems to decrease accidents on Highway 13. She said her husband, Grant, hit two elk the in the first year the family lived in the area.

"Since the lower limit, he has missed them," she said.

Capt. Williams said there's logic behind a reduced speed limit. A motorist can come to a screeching stop at an increase of 14 feet per second at 55 mph than at 65 mph. That can be the difference of hitting or missing wildlife.

"The nice thing about the reduced speed," he said, "is the extra amount of reaction time."

Amy Hamilton can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 208, or ahamilton@craigdailypress.com.

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