Drive a Wyoming highway for any length of time in the winter and you’ll see them: large trucks swaying in the wind as they crawl along icy roads. Sometimes a gust will win out, toppling the truck and creating a dangerous obstacle for other drivers.
State transportation officials often close highways in the winter to light, high-profile vehicles, but those warnings aren’t always followed. Now, the Wyoming Department of Transportation is trying something new.
Drivers can expect to see different, more specific signage along the interstate, warning them when those roads are closed to light, high-profile vehicles.
For those who don’t heed the warnings and drive on closed roads, however, lawmakers are considering new penalties.
The Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee voted to sponsor a draft bill on Thursday to create a misdemeanor for such a violation, punishable by a $2,500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.
Last winter’s higher-than-usual I-80 closures, along with an increasing amount of blow-over crashes, inspired the legislation.
Anecdotally, Committee Chairman Rep. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne) said lawmakers had also heard of trucking companies encouraging drivers to ignore closures while promising to foot the bill should a fine occur. Taking that into account, the committee added another stipulation to the bill — a first-time offense would also disqualify a person from using their commercial driver license for one year.
The bill will be up for consideration when lawmakers meet in 2024 for the budget session. Meanwhile, WYDOT’s new signage will take a more dynamic approach thanks to research from the University of Wyoming.
Background and research
“No longer are we going to be doing general closures to light, high-profile vehicles. They’re a little bit nebulous,” said Vince Garcia, manager of WYDOT’s Geographic Information System and Intelligent Transportation Systems Program.
Instead, Garcia told lawmakers, WYDOT will be doing closures specific to the weight of vehicles. This change will only take place along Wyoming’s interstates where electronic signs are already installed.
Those signs have traditionally been used to provide drivers with real-time traffic alerts, such as a road closure for light, high-profile vehicles. But the frequency for those closures may be minimizing the meaning and urgency of high-wind events, according to WYDOT.
Plus, out-of-state drivers may not understand the tenacity of Wyoming winds compared to a seasoned resident.
Another difficulty, Garcia said, has to do with identification.
“Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to define what a light, high-profile vehicle is,” Garcia said. “Because when people are asking us to define them, what they really are asking for us is to tell them what type of vehicle is going to blow over.”
Answering that, Garcia said, involves many variables such as the weight, shape and speed of a vehicle, wind gust and direction, roadway geometry and surface condition, as well as the driver’s experience.
Further complicating matters is an increase in intensity and frequency of strong-wind events, according to materials provided to the committee by WYDOT. Meanwhile, tractor trailers are becoming lighter for fuel efficiency. Plus, distribution centers in Cheyenne often mean trucks are arriving fully loaded but leaving as empty trailers.
The section of I-25 south of Cheyenne is where Dr. Norikari Ohara focused his research for WYDOT. Ohara is an associate professor in UW’s College of Engineering and Physical Sciences. His work found that a slight head-wind is more dangerous than a direct broadside gust for a heavy vehicle. Additionally, light vehicles are more prone to blowing over regardless of wind direction.
WYDOT plans to use that research to enhance its Commercial Vehicle Operator Portal. Currently, that system provides visibility, wind and surface condition forecasts for interstate highways in Wyoming. The new capabilities would show windows of opportunity for drivers and would create an option for drivers to self-evaluate blow over risk.
The only enforcement mechanism currently available to Wyoming Highway Patrol to cite drivers of light, high-profile vehicles on closed roads is after they’ve blown over. That’s what WYDOT Director Darin Westby told the committee in May when lawmakers began their off-season work, also known as the interim.
That penalty is a $750 fine and up to 30 days in jail. Altogether, the committee thought that was inadequate, so the bill provides both an earlier mechanism and an increased penalty.
Wyoming statute does not define a light, high-profile vehicle, and the committee chose not to go down that road. According to the Legislative Service Office, no other state statute provides such a definition. That said, adding a vehicle’s weight to WYDOT’s signage provides some drivers and law enforcement with some parameters.
The bill also explicitly states that the driver is liable upon conviction for any fines. The intention being to prevent employer reimbursement. However, lawmakers acknowledged it may be impossible to prevent trucking companies from footing the bill for their employees.
The committee held off on deciding whether the bill would start in the House or Senate. The 2024 budget session begins Feb. 12.