Lawmakers Favor Penalties for Blow Over Violations for Both Resident and Non-Resident Drivers
Limits on trailer weights are now posted over Wyoming interstates
- Published In: Politics
- Last Updated: Nov 04, 2023
Pictured here is a stretch of I-80 near Rawlins at sunrise in November 2022. (Photo by Carrie Haderlie)
By Carrie Haderlie
Special to the Wyoming Truth
With winter fast approaching, high winds and icy conditions will soon increase the risk of blow over crashes on Wyoming interstates.
Revisiting a piece of legislation designed to deter drivers from hauling light trailers on dangerous roads, the Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Interim Committee voted on Friday to expand the penalties in proposed legislation called “Light and high profile vehicle closures.” If adopted, the statute will now include penalties for drivers who are Wyoming residents and non-residents, as well as CDL and regular license holders.
“If there is any question at all as to whether [any driver] should be going [on the interstate], they shouldn’t be,” Lt. Colonel Josh Walther, of the Wyoming Highway Patrol, told the committee. “If you’re driving with an 80 mile an hour crosswind with an empty trailer, chances are you’re going to blow over.”
The 14 committee members voted unanimously to support the proposed law, which would become effective July 1, 2024 if approved by the Legislature. It imposes a $2,500 fine on drivers who “willfully fail” to observe closures to light and high-profile vehicles initiated by the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT). Previously, light and high-profile vehicles were undefined, but WYDOT approved new weight restrictions based on real-time weather conditions and posted them on digital signage statewide.
High wind blow over crashes are on the rise. In 2018, the Wyoming Department of Transportation Highway Safety Program tallied 87. Three years later, the number climbed to 178, and in 2022, there were 157 blow over crashes.
Seasons also affect risk. In January and February 2022, and again in November and December 2022, there were about 20 times the number of blow over crashes as in July of that year.
Officials largely attribute the crash increase to strong wind events increasing in intensity and frequency, while tractor trailers become lighter for fuel efficiency. Road conditions like ice and frost are also present in many of these incidents.
Penalties a deterrent only if clearly communicated
No state statute puts a specific weight limit on “light and high-profile vehicles,” which has led to ambiguity in enforcement since WYDOT first implemented closures to the undefined vehicles in 2011. New WYDOT guidelines are aimed at specific vehicle weights, and during public testimony, Wyoming Trucking Association President and CEO Sheila Foertsch said she saw the new signage while traveling to the committee meeting in Cheyenne.
“I saw [signs] on I-25 coming down yesterday that the road was closed between Wheatland and Cheyenne to enclosed trailers with a GVW [total weight of the truck and payload at a point in time] of less than 40,000 pounds,” Foertsch said. “[That is] pretty descriptive, and to me, much better than ‘light and high-profile.’”
Foertsch said her organization supports expanded penalties in the proposed legislation for all drivers, not just those with a CDL. Privately-owned pickup trucks pulling campers and horse trailers also face increased blow over risk in high winds, she said.
“We don’t condone any driver disregarding those road closed signs,” she said.
To streamline enforcement while setting clear expectations for drivers, Foertsch said penalties must be clearly communicated to drivers. Currently, drivers don’t know what the fines are, so they are not a deterrent, she said.
Sen. John Kolb (R-Rock Springs) suggested adding more information to WYDOT’s digital signage to convey penalties in real time.
“Could we have it posted to say, ‘Under 26,000 pounds GVW’ … road closed, and also add in fine information on that same electronic sign, so it would scroll across and say what the fine is?” Kolb asked.
Highway Patrol Lieutenant Dustin Ragon said a majority of crashes involve out-of-state drivers and carriers. He suggested education and publicizing the penalty on the digital signage could help prevent some of the crashes.
“Many of [these drivers] are not used to our winds, our roads and our weather conditions,” Ragon said.
Although a fine can serve as a deterrent, Walther said real-time communication is key. The highway patrol does not have the manpower to station officers at every partial or full closure all winter, barring traffic or weighing vehicles as drivers continue on the interstate system, he said. That means drivers are left to decide for themselves if a closure applies to their vehicles.
Committee Co-chairman Rep. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne) asked if highway patrol would be unduly burdened by trying to determine which vehicles would be subject to the $2,500 penalty under the proposed law.
“Will troopers be subjected to [determine] what is a high-profile vehicle?” Landen said. “Or are they in a position where they are going to feel comfortable making that determination out on the road, issuing a citation?”
Specific weights are now included on signage, but officers do have leeway for ticketing after a crash occurs, Walther said.
“Essentially, the way we take this is, if they blow over, they were too light and high- profile,” he said. “It is really that simple.”