Pace Cars Patrol Colorado Highway Tunnel

 

Colorado brought out police cars — with lights flashing  — last Saturday in the state's latest effort to keep traffic moving in and around a 1.6-mile tunnel under the Continental Divide. The police pace cars traveled the area at about 55 mph, just under the speed limit, but officials hope the effort will help drivers get to where they are going faster.

Getting through the Eisenhower Tunnel on Interstate 70 is often already a headache. The state installed traffic lights at the entrances, to prevent stop-and-go traffic in the tunnel. But that means motorists can wait for the lights for anywhere between 15 minutes and an hour, and many upset drivers have complained to the state.

But spacing out traffic remains a priority, because a traffic jam underground can be dangerous, says Bob Wilson, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Transportation.

"Emergency vehicles need to get through, so we need to keep traffic as free-flowing as we can in that tunnel and not allow traffic to gridlock and back up," he says. Firefighters need to be able to get to accidents in the tunnel, and ambulances have to travel from the mountains to the hospitals in Denver, Wilson explains.

So, for four hours Saturday, state and local police ran the traffic control on an eight-mile stretch of the highway that included the tunnel. They were typically spaced five minutes apart. Wilson says the initial experience was "very promising," but officials still need to examine the data more closely. They are also planning two follow-up tests, one in September and one in December, where the police will keep pace over a 27-mile stretch.

If all goes well, the police cars will help alleviate traffic jams on busy weekends during the winter, when tourists flock to the ski slopes and then back to Denver, and during the summer. In fact, August is the busiest time of year for the Eisenhower Tunnel, notes the Denver Post .  

Other states have taken different approaches to try to space out traffic. One popular measure a few years ago, as Stateline reported then, was to use signs or pavement markers to warn drivers if they were following the car ahead of them too closely. The concept worked in Maryland, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, but Washington State officials pulled the plug on their experiment after just three days.

That was because Washington drivers slowed down to read the signs along Interstate 5, causing seven-mile back-ups. State officials told Stateline that they believed the concept worked, but not in that specific location.

 
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