THE BUZZ 2: Defeated Drivers

By on March 15, 2017

At least two lodged semis have closed Teton Pass in the last two weeks and irked commuters want change.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – It has been a frustrating winter for those who travel Teton Pass often. Commuters have faced multiple road closures due to dangerous conditions, avalanches, and at least twice in the last two weeks—lodged semi trucks.

Though the pass is closed to trailer traffic until April 15, there have been frequent violations this winter. Stephanie Harsha, communications specialist for WYDOT, reports that as of February 24, Wyoming Highway Patrol troopers were dispatched 79 times for violations of the restriction. Troopers were able to find and take enforcement actions on 32 of those. These numbers include all trailers being pulled, not just semi truck traffic. However, a weigh-in-motion scale has been installed on the Idaho side of the pass to weigh and track heavy vehicles. Wyoming Highway Patrol’s Lt. Matt Brackin said a “substantial” number of semis have been notated by the scale, but did not have an exact number.

Major disruptions

These violations have had a huge impact on those who commute from Teton Valley to Jackson. Jessica Flammang, who happens to contribute to PJH, commutes to Wyoming for multiple jobs, as does almost everyone she knows. She’s lived in the area for 11 years and moved to Driggs for more affordable housing two years ago. She’s never seen a winter like this. “I can’t even count how many closures. I’ve been stuck in Jackson four or five of those times … it’s incredibly inconvenient and expensive.”

Commuters, many of whom make up Jackson’s workforce, have had to make adjustments as the potential for a closure hangs over their heads. Flammang says that she knows people who usually leave Idaho at 5:30 a.m. who have been leaving by 3:30 or 4 a.m., allowing time to drive Pine Creek Pass if need be. “These are people who are driving to do minimum wage jobs.”

Many who commute are often already struggling to find affordable housing and a living wage. “It’s like the housing problem compounded and now we’re facing a transportation crisis as a result of the housing crisis,” Flammang said.

She says overweight traffic on the pass not only endangers people’s livelihoods, but also their lives. “They’re risking the lives of commuters in their cars … and I’ve also seen skiers and snowboarders almost run off the road, people who’ve been hitching for 30 or 40 years.”

The issue, Flammang maintains, should be addressed through an increased police presence on both sides of the pass and a change in the penalties. “I would like to see the fine increase to something exorbitant, like 10 grand. That’s how a lot of people feel.”

Mitigating disaster

Increased police presence has begun as of last week. A March 11 press release issued by Lt. Dave Wagener stated that, “The Wyoming Highway Patrol has taken steps to decrease the continued disregard of the trailer and overweight restrictions on Teton Pass … for the remainder of the seasonal closure. Multiple violations of these restrictions have led to unnecessary crashes, closures of the pass, and stranded motorists who were on the highway legally this winter.”

Flammang’s second wish, for higher fines, is more complicated.

Overweight vehicles are in violation of statute 24-1-109, which forbids willfully failing to observe signs stating closures and restrictions (there are multiple signs warning of Teton Pass’s restrictions, some beginning as far as 50 miles away). The penalty is up to a $750 fine or 30 days in jail. Though many agree this is not a sufficient deterrent, the only way the fine can be raised is at the state level. Trailer drivers are violating a general road closure rule, which covers every road in the state. Therefore, the fine is the same whether a vehicle disobeys a sign on Teton Pass or I-80. “To physically pull out Teton Pass and write a statute for that would be difficult … to increase the fine on the pass, it would have to happen statewide,” Brackin explained.

As Harsha noted, “The Wyoming legislature would either have to change the state statute or create a new one.”

Changing the laws

Now that the legislative session has closed for the year, committees have been assigned interim topics to address. According to Sen. Leland Christensen–R, Alta, the topic of pass regulations has not been directly brought up or assigned. However, one of the topics for the judiciary committee is “bonds and forfeitures having to do with traffic … which might be the opportunity to address [the pass] too.”

Christensen and other legislators have previously worked with WYDOT to install safety runway ramps and signs. Now, there’s been a push to work with mapping services, like Google Maps, to include information about Teton Pass’s restrictions. Ultimately, Christensen says, it’s up to the driver. “At the end of the day, people who are determined to ignore the law still do that regardless.”

Dave Schofield, who works at Evans Construction and is a member of the Wyoming Truckers Association and the Governor’s Transportation Safety Coalition, believes the emphasis should be on prevention and education rather than on regulations. “You’ve got to be real careful about when you try to restrict interstate commerce, or put rules on it that apply only to your state. … If each state had their own regulation, interstate commerce would basically come to a halt.”

According to Schofield, the primary problems are that drivers are unprepared for mountain roads and that financial pressures encourage dangerous decisions.

Though the weight limit for vehicles on Teton Pass is 60,000 pounds, Schofield says he’s seen trucks as heavy as 130,000 drive safely “because the driver knows how to travel the pass. I’ve seen drivers go down not even touching the brake.”

Drivers coming from, say, Florida may not be prepared to handle steep grades. “Some drivers have never even driven in the mountains … I think the majority of them do not understand what they’re getting into.” This lack of experience is dangerous for all, but, as Schofield puts it, “there is no cost effective way to educate all those long haul trucks that may come into Wyoming.”

Punishment vs. prevention

Unprepared drivers may end up at Teton Pass because their GPS leads them there. Though the most sophisticated GPS systems for trucks, around $500, include information about all closures and regulations, companies usually install more crude systems, about $99, that don’t include those alerts. Once a driver who has been advised either by dispatch or GPS to cross the pass sees the signs, they face a difficult decision. “Every time a truck has to turn around, it’s expensive,” Schofield said. “Drivers are certainly under internal and external pressure to be as efficient as they can be.”

Penalizing after the fact is not as effective as prevention, Schofield said. Along with WYDOT, the Governor’s Transportation Safety Coalition is taking measures to cut the problem off at the source. They are attempting to identify trucks’ loading points so that while they’re getting stocked, drivers are informed of mountain pass regulations. Then, even if dispatch or GPS tells a driver to take the pass, they will know not to. “This will significantly cut down on the issue.” The coalition is also working to add more signs and a truck arrester.

But people like Flammang believe it is unlikely anything but harsher penalties will address the problem. Recently, while commuting, she noticed a double-decked semi truck carrying cars about to cross the pass. “I … pulled up next to them to get them to roll down the window to alert them of the restriction and they wouldn’t. I think they knew they were in trailer violation, and they were embarrassed.”  This occurred two days after a jack-knifed semi closed the pass.

Everyone agrees that the issue is urgent, but Flammang has seen the toll first hand. This winter, many people have been living a kind of half-life: “The anger problem is just rising when we don’t see anyone doing anything … it’s a giant waste of energy. Whenever there’s downtime, a lot of the conversation is just focused on these issues … this community has so many committed, inspirational activists and workers who are having their energy diverted when they could be involved with work, activism, community.” PJH

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