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December 03, 2013 9:22 am

Avoid tragedy by barring access to closed highways

Written by Ilene Olson

Drivers must use common sense in addition to GPS directions

At least seven people were rescued over the last eight months after their cars got stuck on closed roads in mountains surrounding the Big Horn Basin.

Four Northwest College students got stuck in the Owl Mountains just inside Hot Springs County in March. The young men were relying on instructions provided by a GPS device, which directed them to a gravel mountain pass road that is not maintained in the winter. Fortunately, they were able to get a cell signal and summon help, which they directed with coordinates from the same GPS device.

Then, in late October, a couple from Wisconsin, also following GPS directions, got stranded high in the Beartooth Mountains after not seeing a sign advising that the highway closes during the winter. No cell service was available, and Mark and Kristine Wathke weren’t found until six days later. By then, convinced they would die, they had written goodbye notes to friends and family members. Had they not stayed in their car and, if they hadn’t brought food and water with them, they likely would have perished.

Most recently, on Nov. 15, a young woman from South Dakota traveling to Powell from Sheridan got stuck on an unplowed Forest Service road. Shaina Hughes also was following GPS directions and had no cell signal. She spent the night in her car, then decided to walk to find help, but ended up walking in the wrong direction.

In each case, a dramatic rescue resulted after considerable effort by the rescuers — deputies from two county sheriff’s offices, a rancher and a highway patrolman — saving the lives of the stranded travelers.

These life-and-death dramas teach two important lessons: First, the Wyoming and U.S. transportation departments should consider installing bigger, attention-grabbing signs and/or gates on mountain-area highways that close for the winter. Those are some of the routes for tourists who are making trips to Yellowstone and the Beartooths. Many are unfamiliar with the area, and often are even unaware that some mountain highways close for the winter and are snowed over.

A square, white-and-black sign is easily overlooked, especially in a rain or snowstorm. At the very least, the advisory signs should be large and bright yellow. Flashing lights on top would be even better. Flashing lights on closed gates after an advisory sign would work best.

As these instances illustrate, people are relying increasingly on GPS devices to help them find routes to their destinations, and those devices often don’t differentiate between year-round and warm-weather-only routes.

The second lesson here is that travelers should carry highway maps with them in addition to relying on GPS devices. If something doesn’t seem right, double-check the route on a map or stop and ask for assistance; don’t blindly follow GPS directions.

Your life may depend on your use of common sense.

2 comments

  • Comment Link December 03, 2013 9:58 am posted by iefbr14

    How about some simple common sense, instead of solutions that cost the taxpayers a lot of money? I can't count the times I've driven over the Big Horns, often in snowy weather. I don't care WHAT the GPS says, I would not drive off the obvious main highway onto some dirt or snow-covered Forest Service road. Not years ago, and certainly not now. People have even turned onto active RR tracks and bumped down the ties because their GPS supposedly told them to do so. I seldom carry maps anymore, but I supervise my GPS. I don't blindly follow it.

  • Comment Link December 09, 2013 3:26 pm posted by Shaina Hughes

    Hello this is Shaina Hughes and I did not walk for help in the wrong direction? Where on earth did you get that? I walked exactly where I wanted. I walked towards the nearest town in hope of getting close enough to humanity to get cell phone service. Which I did and because of that I was able to call 911. From there they pinpointed my location.

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