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The mudslide that never happened: how incorrect information caused confusion for drivers

Is your GPS system lying to you about road closures?
Pitkin County Tweets
Posted at 3:02 PM, Aug 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-06 17:02:43-04

PITKIN COUNTY, Colo. — A series of incorrect tweets sent out by the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office has caused some confusion for drivers trying to navigate around the I-70 closure in Glenwood Canyon.

I-70 in the area has been closed since July 29 when a massive mudslide covered part of the road; The Colorado Department of Transportation has been working ever since then to clear and repair the road.

In the meantime, drivers have been finding other ways around the area. For some, Independence Pass (Colorado 82) has been an option. Pictures on social media show a packed road in both directions.

On Wednesday, however, the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office sent out a tweet saying the road was closed due to a mudslide. Given the state’s serious wildfires last year and heavy rains this year, the notification didn’t seem out of the ordinary.

Another tweet sent out 11 minutes later reiterated the fact that there was a mudslide and encouraging people to find an alternate route.

CDOT’s website was also updated to reflect the road closure, blaming it on a mudslide in the area. Google, Apple and other GPS mapping systems were subsequently notified by the agency that the road was closed and started routing traffic around the pass.

In reality, there was no mudslide, and the road was not closed off.

More than an hour after sending out the first tweet about the mudslide, the sheriff’s office changed courses, saying in a tweet the road is shown as closed on the state’s website and various GPS systems, “to prevent I-70 detour traffic from being routed onto that rural, challenging mountain highway with limited cell service.”

Independence Pass can certainly be a dangerous drive. Greg Fulton, the president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, says that is exactly why semi trucks are not allowed on it and why their commercial GPS systems flag the road as an area they cannot go.

“Independence Pass, if you go through it, it’s beautiful. I mean, it’s great. But, if you look at it, it’s very narrow, it has a number of switchbacks, and it really wasn’t designed for larger vehicles, and so, right now, there’s a restriction of 40 feet or less,” Fulton said.

CDOT’s website was also quickly updated to read: “CO 82 Independence Pass should not be considered an alternate route, NO CMV or Vehicles over 35' allowed. Delivery vehicles, RVs and trailers should not use use Independence Pass to bypass the Interstate closure. Route is a narrow, high mountain roadway with tight switchbacks and heavy tourist traffic.”

Denver7 reached out to Pitkin County’s Sheriff’s Office multiple times to find out where the mudslide misinformation originated but did not receive a response.

CDOT did not agree to an interview but said in an email, “The cotrip.org information showing CO 82 as closed yesterday (Wednesday 8/4) had incorrect information about a mudslide on CO 82. There were no mudslides on CO 82 yesterday. Because the information on cotrip.org was incorrect, we corrected the information in less than an hour. We apologize for the confusion.”

However, CDOT did not explain where the mudslide misinformation originated after being asked repeatedly by Denver7. Instead, a spokesperson simply said that the information was incorrect and posted by accident.

Nevertheless, GPS systems still show the road as closed and routed drivers a much longer way around it.

Denver7 also reached out to Google and Apple to find out whether the companies are planning on updating their maps to reflect the fact that the road is, in fact, open. Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

Google, meanwhile, sent Denver7 a statement:

“We built Google Maps with safety and reliability in mind, and are working quickly to investigate any routing issues related to Independence Pass and surrounding areas. Navigation guidance in Google Maps is based on street designations gathered from sources like authoritative data providers and real-time feedback from users. When official changes are made to restrict certain routes, we update our directions accordingly.”

Fulton says he understands the challenge CDOT faces when determining what roads to indicate as open or closed, particularly dangerous ones that, while open, are not recommended for everyone.

He believes the bigger picture is the need for the state to find more alternative routes for drivers.

“You do have an awful lot of traffic and they’re going through smaller communities," Fulton said. "I think one of the things that brought home to a lot of us is the need for resiliency in the system and some sort of alternate or detour type route for I-70 when it’s going to be close for any period of time like this.”