In less than three years, five people have died on U.S. 550 — three of them in this year alone.
The Colorado State Patrol is launching enhanced enforcement for speeding, impaired driving and distracted driving, in hopes of preventing more crashes, as well as to remind drivers to obey the law.
Between Thursday, July 29 and through Saturday, July 31, more troopers will be on the road on U.S. 550 in the local CSP Troop 5C area, as well as on the section of U.S. 550 patrolled by the CSP troop office based in Durango. The latter is also stepping up patrols on U.S. 160.
“Looking at the last 2.5 years of data, we have had five fatal crashes, 33 injury crashes and 259 property damage crashes,” CSP Troop 5C Capt. James Saunders said. “This is a highway that is dangerous and we are going to patrol it. The end goal is to save lives and reduce crashes.”
He also said year-to-date data this year show 28 more crashes than the same period last year — 67, compared with 39 — pointing to a traffic increase since pandemic restrictions eased.
The three fatalities occurred within months of each other.
On May 28, trucker Ralph Lowery, 58, of Ouray left the roadway near Ridgway State Park, went down an embankment, up another, collided with trees and rolled. He was ejected as his semi rolled.
Toxicology reports showed a high level of alcohol in his blood, Saunders said, and the CSP now considers impairment as a factor in the crash.
On June 16, Telluride resident Silas Berrier, 26, was south of Ouray on U.S. 550, when he crossed the centerline into the opposite lane of travel, left the road and rolled multiple times. He was thrown from his vehicle. The crash was discovered later that morning.
Saunders said excessive speed was a factor.
Motorcyclist Paul McElrea lost his life in almost the same location, crashing near mile post 102 and into a field on July 7. Alcohol is again suspected as a contributing factor, Saunders said.
Officials have long clamored for safety enhancements on U.S. 550, including widening the road for passing lanes and installing rumble strips to alert drivers when they are straying over the center line.
Every fatal crash prompts a review and those enhancements are among the ideas on the table, Saunders said. Decisions about road improvements are ultimately down to the Colorado Department of Transportation and available funding.
Motorists themselves are the key piece in road safety.
“Please watch your speed, limit your distractions and drive sober. Those are the main reasons we are having crashes,” Saunders said.
Saunders said motorists who are pulled over tend to ask his troopers for some kind of a break. The stepped up enforcement is the “break,” as traffic contacts are intended to get people’s attention, as well as their compliance.
“This will be the warning. Hopefully, some voluntary compliance will come from this and we will have a safe weekend for everybody,” he said.
“The summer months for us were just horrible. We’re giving it all we’ve got to keep people safe.”
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.