Why aren’t there more guardrails on Colorado’s dangerous roads?

Driving up Red Mountain Pass. Photo Credit: Adventure_Photo (iStock).

Much of Colorado’s striking mountain scenery is accessible from high-altitude mountain passes and summit-reaching routes. These often switchbacking, cliffside roads aren’t for the faint of heart, typically featuring sections with little space between the tire and a deadly drop-off.

With a pounding heart and churning stomach, a white-knuckled driver can’t help but wonder: “Why aren’t there more guard rails to save my life should I veer off the road?”

Some assume it must have to do with winter snow removal under the presumption that guardrails might make it difficult for the plows to push snow off the edge of the road.

“We do not put ease of maintenance over the safety of the traveling public,” says Zane Znamenacek, CDOT Traffic and Safety Engineer in northwest Colorado. “There is a lot of thought and analysis that goes into guardrail placement. In general, we consider guardrail to be one of the last safety countermeasures in our tool box.”

Guardrails may not actually provide the best protection for an errant vehicle.

“A guardrail itself is a hazard, as it is a stationary object very near to the highway edge,” explains Znamenacek. “We also try to do other things whenever possible, such as provide shoulders on the edge of our highways, striping, delineators, and also rumble strips – which have proven to be very effective at preventing vehicles from traveling off the highway.”

Sometimes, there simply isn’t room. For instance, certain sections of Independence Pass are too skinny to even have a yellow line.

“We have many areas where the road is not wide enough to place a guardrail next to the traveled way,” says Znamenacek. Though this might make the road scarier, it might not actually make it less safe.

“While counter-intuitive, it has also been shown that a lack of guardrail might actually lead drivers to drive slower and more cautiously if they perceive a danger at the edge of the road,” explains Znamenacek. “While we would not purposely omit guardrail with hopes that motorists might drive more cautiously in an area, it further reinforces the idea that guardrail should only be placed where it can address a specific demonstrated problem with vehicles leaving the roadway.”

So, there you have it – if a guardrail is the best option and a possibility, it will be used. However, there are often better safety options and, sometimes, the roads are simply too narrow for a guardrail to be installed.

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