White-knuckle roads

| May 07, 2008

Just past the truck brake-inspection station on infamous Monteagle Mountain, east-bound I-24 in Tennessee, the long dangerous downgrade begins.

The ideal road, says America’s Road Team Captain Albert Adams, is “an interstate highway on a nice, sunny, 70-degree day with light traffic.”

It’s too bad not every road can be ideal.

Statistically, the most dangerous places to drive are two-lane country roads, but for over-the-road truckers, it’s the curvy, the foggy, the snow-drowned stretches of major interstates where big accidents happen that stick in the memory for years to come.

We asked some of the most talented and experienced drivers in the nation to tell us which roads make even their stomachs tense up and knuckles turn white. These are the roads that inspire truckstop and CB stories – some tall tales and some, regrettably, all too true.

On a storm track
The combination of snow, ice, high winds and heavy traffic on the stretch of I-80 between Laramie, Wyo., and the Utah border makes the road so deadly it has inspired the nickname “Snow Chi Minh Trail,” after the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam, less a road than a web of jungle paths the North Vietnamese supplied their armies through during the Vietnam War.

Winter weather conditions make Snow Chi Minh not only dangerous but a time-waster, says 20-year veteran driver Terry Robinson. The road itself isn’t bad, he says, but in the winter it’s often shut down by accidents, leaving truckers stranded for hours to wait it out.

“It just happens to be in a place where it’s very susceptible to winter conditions and a high volume of truck travel in both directions,” says the 67-year-old Robinson, who drives mostly in the West. “We get very slick conditions and winds that blow up to 50-75 mph across that highway. It’s not infrequent, either – it seems to be on a storm track.”

The interstate is lined with snow fences to collect snow so it doesn’t blow or collect on the road, but the snow fences can’t stop wind or ice.

Though Robinson drives plenty of snowy mountain passes, “I-80 is the one I would prefer to avoid in the winter if at all possible,” he says. “There’s so much traffic, and they have so many different occurrences with vehicles.” He says it’s closed often.

Because it’s a main thoroughfare through the West, it’s tough to avoid if you’re hauling a load in the area. But before you travel it, check with the Wyoming Department of Transportation (www.wyoroad.info) for road closures and dangerous conditions.

Worthy of a song
On I-24 between Nashville and Chattanooga, Tenn., there’s a hill that’s not the steepest in the country but has a reputation steep enough to have reached the likes of Johnny Cash, who recorded a song about it in 1986. “Your life is in your hands when you start down that long steep grade on Monteagle Mountain,” Cash sings, and the picture he paints gets even grimmer:

When I started down Monteagle,
the brakes just wouldn’t hold.
I knew I was in trouble
and ’bout to lose control.
The runaway ramp was waitin’,
I saw the warning sign.
I said, ‘Lord help me make it -
have mercy on this soul of mine.’

The fictional trucker in his song eventually makes it down the hill in one piece, and so do most of the thousands of truckers who travel it each year. The “mountain” is really a plateau with a long slope stretching over 7 miles, but it can give your brakes and transmission a workout.

Even tough truckers like Walbert Trucking driver Allen Yearly, based in mountainous western Virginia, prefer to avoid Monteagle Mountain. Yearly, who started his driving career in a coal truck, saw his share of challenging, dangerous roads hauling to and from the mines. “Those roads are just narrow, slick and curvy, and when you’re hauling a heavy load and the road is angled,” he says, “the load can get to rocking and turn you over. You have to be real careful.”

He says there’s absolutely no analogous experience on the National Highway System: “After I got used to those coal roads, nothing else so much bothers me.”

At the same time, he says the interstates through the Appalachians in the East present even greater challenges than the switchbacks in the Rockies out West. “Out there, you can usually see pretty far ahead,” he says. Not the case, in particular, on the infamous Monteagle Mountain. When Yearly can’t avoid driving it, he’ll take it slow, all the while gearing in inverse proportion to the weight of his load on the downgrade: the heavier the load, the lower the gear. With the 10-speed tranny in his 1992 Freightliner he’ll take the grade usually in 6th gear, he says, if fully loaded.

To plan ahead before you venture down Monteagle Mountain, check for accidents, weather and construction on the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s SmartWay interactive map (tdot.state.tn.us, click TDOT Smartway logo).

Rocky mountain high
Colorado’s I-70 and its major tributaries throughout the state have perhaps more chancy mountain passes than any area of the country. Trucker Robinson, who drives for Quality Wholesale Supply, based in Denver, travels them all.

With colorful names like Wolf Creek Pass (which inspired an album cover song by Convoy crooner C.W. McCall) and Rabbit Ears Pass, these roads offer that old-fashioned Western kind of danger only the Rocky Mountains can provide, with a bonus dash of recreational traffic on the weekends.

“Wolf Creek Pass is a two-lane road that goes through one of the more heavy snowfall areas in the state,” Robinson says. “Very twisty-turny, a lot of elevation change, and an extremely slow pass to negotiate in the winter.

“Rabbit Ears is going into Steamboat Springs, a resort town. It’s pretty narrow in some places, and it gets a lot of snow also, and it’s frequently required for commercial trucks to chain up.”

Meanwhile, the heavily traveled I-70 is a multi-lane highway, but in the winter it’s frequently snow-packed and icy, Robinson says.

“I drive I-70 a lot, west from Denver through Eisenhower Tunnel and Vail Pass, which are notorious for chain laws,” he says.

By now, he’s used to them all, but a lot of drivers he’s met prefer to wait for daylight to travel the mountain passes. “It’s common to find truckers in the rest areas waiting out the nighttime conditions,” he says. “A lot of times in the dark, if it snows or is still snowing, you can’t see the lane lines. A lot of four-wheelers try to drive in the middle because they can’t see the lanes.”

Some drivers prefer to avoid the Centennial State altogether, especially I-70. “We won’t even go through Colorado,” says Dora Colvin, 2006 Truckload Carriers Association/Truckers News Company Equipment Driver of the Year and team driver with her husband, Butch, who have more than 40 years driving experience each. “Butch ran a bus up there hauling skiers for 10 years, so he knows those conditions and we stay out of them. We don’t run 70 in the West in the winter time. You get so many storms. When we’re going that way, we use the internet to find road blockages, and we’ll go around it if there’s any way possible.”

An unlikely but thorough source for road conditions in Colorado is realtor Dick Gilbert’s website (www.dickgilbert.com/I-70cams.htm), which includes webcams of all the major – and not-so-major – cities on I-70 and links to a multitude of weather and traffic reports.

Pea soup
Fog was responsible for some of the worst crashes in Tennessee state history – including a 125-car pile-up in 2002 – and they happened on I-75 about 30 miles north of Chattanooga, a spot known for its terrible habit of developing thick, blinding fog. So many big accidents have happened on this section of highway that the local government invested funds in expensive electronic speed limit signs equipped with lasers to sense fog and allow police to change the speed limit when necessary.

Many veteran drivers – especially ones who travel through coastal, mountainous and humid areas – will tell you fog is their least favorite road condition to travel through. “I would have to say fog is the worst,” says 38-year veteran trucker Adams, who drives throughout the Midwest for Roadway, “because you can’t see where you’re going. You just have to find a place to get off the road and wait it out.”

When the fog is thick, your visibility can drop to zero, and that leaves drivers vulnerable.
“We lost a good friend and his son in a head-on collision, truck accident, years ago, and it was because of fog, and it haunts me to this day,” says Colvin, who drives with her husband for Con-Way Truckload. “You’re not in control, and any time you give up control, you’re in trouble. The conditions are stronger than we are in situations like that.”

To check up on the conditions on this stretch of I-75 before you get there, try perusing the links at I-75 Online (www.i75online.com), a travel information site with weather, gas prices, traffic conditions and more.

Triple threat
One of the most hazardous stretches of road in the generally notorious Northwest is Emigrant Hill, nicknamed “Cabbage Hill” – a 7-mile downgrade 35 miles west of La Grande, Ore., on I-84. It combines a double hairpin curve and steep hill with variable and often severe weather conditions – including snow, fog and black ice – for much of the year.

The hill is especially dangerous to over-the-road truckers, reports the Oregon Department of Transportation, which claims that more than 78 percent of accidents on Cabbage Hill involve out-of-state motor carriers.

To help truckers avoid the dangers, warnings signs provide recommended speeds, and two escape ramps are located at Milepost 221 and 220. Also, drivers in trucks with Green Light transponders will receive a personalized message with the recommended speed.

Oregon boasts some of the steepest interstate grades in the United States, including the nation’s steepest at Siskiyou Summit, a mountain pass just north of the California border.

The Colvins are familiar with Oregon – a little too familiar this year, they say. “We’ve been caught in Oregon and Wyoming something fierce this winter,” Dora Colvin says. “It’s been an interesting winter. I said if this winter doesn’t turn me gray, nothing will!”
For detailed tips on how to navigate Cabbage Hill, visit ODOT’s website (www.oregon.gov/ODOT/MCT/docs/EmigrantHill.pdf). For road conditions across Oregon, call (800) 977-6368.

Bad and beautiful
One of the longest stretches of dangerous road in the country is the 500 miles of I-44 between St. Louis and Oklahoma City, which follows the outer curve of the picturesque Ozark Mountains. The entire 500 miles isn’t dangerous, but there are enough white-knuckle spots throughout to qualify the whole thing.

In the last decade, Oklahoma DOT has recorded 20 fatal traffic collisions on one stretch of highway in Tulsa; in April 2007, a trucker died in a collision with another trucker’s rig near Miami, Okla.; and on an icy day this February, there was a 12-car pile-up south of Springfield, Mo.

While I-44 in Missouri was named one of the most improved roads in the country in Overdrive magazine’s 2006 reader survey, its danger lies less in its structure than its environment, says Dora Colvin.

“My husband hates I-44 because of the hills and the rain,” she says. “That road is quite dangerous. They’ve had a horrendous amount of ice on that road for the past couple of years. You’ve got the Ozarks and all that beauty; consequently you’ve got all those hills. In wet conditions, that’s quite a highway to deal with.”

In Missouri, find out road conditions on MoDOT’s Traveler Information Map (maps.modot.mo.gov). In Oklahoma, the Department of Public Safety offers a map of weather conditions across the state (visit www.dps.state.ok.us, click “Oklahoma Weather-Related Road Conditions), or you can call (405) 425-2385 or (888) 425-2385 for the latest information.


Stay Safe on Dangerous Roads
Even when the notoriously dangerous roads are impossible to avoid, you can increase your odds of staying safe if you follow this advice from experienced drivers:

  1. Take the warnings seriously. “Any road has the potential of being dangerous if you don’t approach it with a great deal of respect,” says 2006 Company Equipment Driver of the Year and 43-year veteran driver Dora Colvin.

  2. Focus on protecting not only yourself but also the fellow drivers sharing the road. “I pray not only for our own safety but that we won’t cause a problem for somebody else,” Colvin says. “I leave everybody a wide berth, and I want them to do the same for me.”
  3. If the weather is too dangerous, don’t hesitate to stop and wait it out. “There’s no way to avoid [bad weather] other than pulling over and waiting till it gets better,” says Albert Adams, a 38-year veteran driver and 2007 captain of America’s Road Team.
  4. Even if the weather seems fine now, be mentally and physically prepared for the worst. “If it rains, especially in the summertime, you’re going to have the oils in the asphalt rise to the top, and that can create a very slick situation,” Adams says. “If the temperature is hovering close to the freezing point, that rain can also freeze on the road. Especially in the north up here, it might be 40 degrees outside, but the ground holds the cold temperatures. You’ve got to be extremely cautious.”
  5. Plan ahead. With the internet, satellite radio and 5-1-1 numbers, there are few excuses not to know the conditions up ahead and decide whether to take an alternate route, wait it out, or continue forward with caution. “Thank goodness with the internet we can see what’s going on ahead of us and stay away from the pack,” Colvin says. “If you get up where everyone is bumper to bumper, it becomes mob thought. I don’t like that feeling.”
  6. Drive at a safe speed – and that doesn’t necessarily mean slower than the traffic around you, says 20-year veteran driver Terry Robinson. “There are always some cowboys that feel they need to go faster than everyone else, but to me one of the biggest hazards I see out there are those that go way slower than everyone else.”
  7. Prepare for surprises. No road is perfect, and the dangers can be unexpected. “When you go East, you got people. When you get West, you get the elk,” says Dora Colvin. “North Dakota has its blizzards, and Kansas has its tornados. You just have to be alert to what the conditions are in the individual areas. You can’t fight a tornado!”

Roads Few Will Travel
Two of the most dangerous roads in North America are traveled by only a select few elite truckers. In recent years, Truckers News has covered both of these treacherous roads – the James B. Dalton Highway (more commonly known as the “Haul Road”), a rugged 414-mile stretch of road cutting through the wilds of Alaska, and Canada’s ice road, which leads truckers north from Yellowknife to isolated mining communities that can only be accessed in the winter, over frozen lakes.


Annual Owner-Operator Survey Ranks Troubled Roadways
By Todd Dills

Since 1991, Truckers News’ sister magazine Overdrive has tracked and reported on the state of the nation’s roadways in its annual Highway Report Card survey of its owner-operator readers.

Christened “Worst Roads” in that first survey, it now covers more than just roads. In addition to ranking the best and worst highways by state and segment, it also tallies states’ rest areas, truckstops, law enforcement and more.

Potholes, washboarding, high tolls and scarcity of truckstops and rest areas are just a few of the common marks survey respondents have placed on highways’ records.

For the second year in a row, in 2007 Louisiana topped the worst roads list, a spot above the all-time leading worst-roads “winner,” Pennsylvania.

Throughout the 1990s, the Keystone State’s DOT got an earful from Overdrive’s readers, resulting in significant improvements, particularly along I-80 and the turnpike.

This year, as Pennsylvania’s I-80 segment placed second in the most-improved category, state lawmakers moved forward with a plan to toll the freeway under a federal pilot program allowing the tolling of existing interstates. Truckers balked, with the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association joining NATSO and the local opposition to call for a denial of federal approval for the scheme, which was part of an attempt to increase highway revenues in the state to prevent a projected funding shortfall. One of the criteria for tolling approval under the pilot program requires tolling to be the only appropriate solution to highway maintenance or reconstruction. By delivering the compliment that was the second place ranking for most improved, survey respondents may have dealt the tolling effort a blow, as clear progress on the road has been made in recent years without tolls. Or not. Pennsylvania’s still second for worst roads overall.

Arkansas, too, has topped the list, and the way former governor Mike Huckabee explains it, Overdrive readers had a lot to do with his state government’s decision to raise the fuel tax to fund a massive interstate highway overhaul at the turn of the century. Of course, in his stump speech earlier this year he kept referring to the magazine as something called “Truckers’ Magazine” (detail must not be his strong suit). Regardless, the overhaul has at least partly worked. As in Pennsylvania, Arkansas’ I-40 and I-30 have been congratulated for significant improvement in recent years, but the state’s still in the top five for worst roads overall.


Intersections to Avoid
State Farm Insurance conducted a study based on auto accident claims between 1999 and 2000 and found these 10 intersections across the United States have the highest “danger index.” The danger index is determined by the number of crashes at intersections, their severity and the number that involved injury. It is adjusted to account for the percentage of vehicles insured by State Farm in areas where the intersections are located.

  1. Flamingo Road and Pines Boulevard, Pembroke Pines, Fla.

  2. Red Lion Road and Roosevelt Boulevard, Philadelphia
  3. Grant Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard, Philadelphia
  4. Seventh Street and Bell Road, Phoenix
  5. 51st Street and Memorial Drive, Tulsa, Okla.
  6. 71st Street and Memorial Drive, Tulsa, Okla.
  7. 19th Avenue and Northern Avenue, Phoenix
  8. State Highway 121 and Preston Road, Frisco, Texas
  9. Clearwater Parkway and Veterans Memorial Boulevard, Metairie, La.
  10. Fair Oaks Boulevard and Howe Avenue, Sacramento, Calif.

Bad, Bad Drivers
A big part of what makes a road dangerous is the skill – or lack thereof – of the drivers traveling it. Most over-the-road truckers have opinions about which states have the worst drivers. Florida comes up a lot in conversation.

But how do you prove which state has the worst drivers? One way to quantify truckers’ anecdotal experience is through driving test scores. For each of the past three years, GMAC Insurance has administered a 20-question driver’s test (taken from actual DMV tests) to licensed drivers between 16 and 65. The results? Between 6 and 11 percent of licensed drivers would fail the test if they had to retake it.

Northeastern states have consistently fared the worst on the test, while Northwestern states have the highest scores.

In 2007, the following 10 states had the worst average scores:

  1. New York

  2. New Jersey
  3. District of Columbia
  4. Massachusetts
  5. Rhode Island
  6. Pennsylvania
  7. Illinois
  8. Georgia
  9. West Virginia
  10. Louisiana

Take the test yourself at http://www.gmacinsurance.com/SafeDriving/.

GMAC’s results share quite a bit with the opinions of Truckers News’ sister publication Overdrive’s owner-operator readers. In the magazine’s annual Highway Report Card (see “Annual Owner-Operator Survey Ranks Troubled Roadways,” p. 28), it ranks not only road conditions but the quality of four-wheeler drivers by state. The results for 2007 follow.

  1. New York

  2. California
  3. Illinois
  4. Florida
  5. Texas
  6. New Jersey
  7. Georgia
  8. Ohio
  9. Michigan
  10. Minnesota

Perilous Treks Around the World
The Association for Safe International Road Travel specializes in highlighting dangerous roads and areas so travelers will be safer, but the group hesitates to designate a top 10 list.

“While less dramatic, it is far more useful to travelers to have a comprehensive understanding of typical road conditions and driver behaviors in a particular country,” says Bonnie Ramsey, an ASIRT researcher. “Availability and quality of emergency medical care and seasonal travel conditions are also helpful to know.”

Some of the roads the organization has studied – and found lacking – are listed below.

The Old Yungas Road, Bolivia
This 50-mile mountainous road connects the cities of Coroico and La Paz and combines several dangerous driving conditions in one – hairpin curves; narrow stretches; eroding waterfalls; reckless drivers; and steep areas that plunge into a thick, road-obscuring fog. A new, safer road has been constructed, but the old one is still in use.

Grand Trunk Road, India to Afghanistan
Flooded with trucks, ox carts, animals, bicycles and pedestrians, this busy road was created in the 16th century to connect the major cities of India with those of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Rudyard Kipling spoke of it this way: “such a river of life as exists nowhere else in the world.”

Nairobi-Nakuru-Eldoret Highway, Kenya
More than 300 people die on this road each year in crashes, most caused by speeding, improper passing and drunken driving. Rehabilitation of the road began in March 2005 but has been delayed due to heavy rains, additional work of constructing three bridges and, most recently, post-election violence.

Interstate 116, Brazil
The second-longest road in Brazil, this interstate is marked by potholes, poor signals and heavy traffic in the cities. The Curitiba-Sao Paulo section of the highway is nicknamed “Rodovia da Morte” (Highway of Death), due to its many accidents and the fact that it runs along – and even through – the edges of steep cliffs.

IP-3, Portugal
Nicknamed the “Road of Death,” this steep, deteriorating road linking the cities of Coimbra and Viseu has no barrier between lanes, and its tight curves are dangerous when wet. The road has a high accident and fatality rate – a tour bus accident killed 14 people in 2001.

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