OCRA marketing manager Heidi Pankow said that last week’s “Most Dangerous” designation stirred up a flurry of comments in the social media, most of them passionately defending the infamous 23-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 550 that connects Ouray to Silverton via Red Mountain Pass that is equal parts spectacular and terrifying.
“People do love this road,” Pankow said. “I remember the first time I experienced it as a passenger, it was thrilling, scary and absolutely beautiful. I loved every minute of it.”
The first time she drove it herself, she added, she was following a school bus to a sporting event near Durango, and felt very safe.
“Our highway crews that maintain the road and do avalanche mitigation are phenomenal,” she said. “If they close it, you know it’s bad. And if it’s open, you know it’s safe. I have lived in cities where it is more dangerous to drive than on Highway 550.”
Among the 11 other roads that made USA Today’s “Most Dangerous” list are Bolivia’s Old Yungas Road (aka “The Death Road”) – a winding, 40-mile-long stretch of road that plummets from the high Andean capital city of La Paz to the Amazon basin 11,500 feet below, killing more than 100 people each year; Norway’s serpentine “Troll’s Way,” with its hairpin turns that snake their way up a 2,790-foot mountain pass; China’s Guoliang Tunnel road, literally carved into the side of a sheer cliff; the infamous, IED-littered Highway of Death between Kuwait and Basra; the Karakoram Highway, linking China and Pakistan over the 15,400-foot Khunjerab Pass along the route of the old Silk Road; and the Kabul-Jalalabad Highway in Afghanistan, a 40-mile stretch of road where, the article’s author suggests, “the insurgency is perhaps trumped by opium-crazed Afghan drivers who recklessly – and blindly – try to pass the lumbering freight trucks that crawl up the narrow mountain passes.”
“It does seem like they have kind of blown us out of proportion,” Pankow said. “People love this road; they do. They love the fact it is so spectacular. If you are following the rules of the road, and not eating or drinking or texting or arguing with passengers...as long as you are paying attention, you will be fine.”
The publicity blitz has, in a way, been good for Ouray. “It’s definitely sparking conversation,” Pankow said. “People feel very passionately about this road; they love it so much.”
Among the comments on OCRA’s “Ouray Colorado” Facebook page after last week’s designation was a post from one Ouray fan touting the “payoff at the end of the road” – and sharing a photo of the Ouray Hot Springs Pool.
In the end, all publicity is good publicity, Pankow said.
The Colorado Department of Transportation has also taken the recent media storm over Highway 550 by the horns, emphasizing that although the Million Dollar Highway is rife with inherent dangers – sheer drop-offs, hairpin turns, avalanches, blizzards, mudslides and rockfall – the infamous highway (portions of which were built as a toll road by Otto Mears in the 1880s) has also benefited from herculean efforts over the years to make it safer.
Yes, Red Mountain Pass has more avalanche exposure than any other stretch of highway in the nation. But, pointed out CDOT publicist Nancy Shanks, there have only been six avalanche fatalities on US 550 over Red Mountain Pass (three were CDOT plow drivers) since CDOT started keeping data, and all occurred before 1992, when CDOT and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center began avalanche mitigation. All of those lives were lost in the East Riverside Slide, where a snowshed now shields much of the highway from danger.
All in all, considering the risks, there have been surprisingly few fatal accidents on the highway. In a 16-year period from 1995 through 2010, out of a total of 302 accidents, only eight involved fatalities, with nine people killed. By contrast, there are 100 fatalities on Bolivia’s Death Road every year.
Highway 550 has also benefited in recent years from significant infrastructure improvements that have enhanced the highway’s safety, including stabilization and improvement of the Bear Creek tunnel in the late 1990s, the Bear Creek Bridge replacement project that was completed in October 2011, and more recent efforts to shore up aging cribbing along the Ruby Walls, among other things. More crib wall replacement projects are scheduled in the spring and summer of 2014, with the goal of increasing the stability of the roadway.
“The highway provides the potential for many dangers,” Shanks admitted – particularly for the CDOT workers, whose job it is to keep the highway as safe as possible. But, she added, “When you look at those other highways around the world, they are just scary.
“Then you look at the Million Dollar Highway and you think, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful.’”