Death raises safety questions

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As Tom Schupra looked at the dozen or so photos tacked to a board at his friend Carol Wayland's funeral, he couldn't help but admire the beautiful images.

There were pictures of Wayland and her husband standing in front of a mountain and pictures of Wayland posing on her snowmobile and giving a thumbs-up sign.

That was the last photo taken of Carol Wayland.

She was killed Jan. 10 in a snowmobile accident on Rabbit Ears Pass near the Dumont Lake parking area.

According to the Colorado State Patrol, Wayland was attempting to cross U.S. Highway 40 from a plowed parking area when a lumber-hauling semi truck struck her.

The 43-year-old Michigan resident's death has rocked her hometown of Troy, Steamboat Springs and the snowmobiling community, partly because such deaths are so uncommon.

In the days since, people in those communities have been trying to decide why the accident happened, and people who were there are giving conflicting answers to that question.

One percent

Fatalities involving a car or truck account for less than 1 percent of the total number of reported snowmobile-related deaths every year, said Chris Jourdain, executive director of the American Council of Snow--mobile Associations in East Lansing, Mich.

"That kind of death is not common," she said. "Usually, snowmobilers will die in avalanches or in alcohol-related accidents."

About 110 people die annually in snowmobile-related accidents, according to the Consumer Safety Product Com--mission.

About 40 percent of the deaths result from snowmobiles colliding with trees, wires, bridges or other vehicles.

Wave or no wave

Jourdain said that in her experience, when snowmobilers cross a road or major highway, a member of the group dismounts, checks the area for traffic, crosses and then waves the others across when it's safe.

"With that said, I am baffled how (Wayland) was hit," she said.

A central question about Wayland's death is whether a guide waved her across the highway in front of the truck, as a family friend says, or whether she ignored the guide's signal to wait, as a tour operator says.

Meanwhile, Colorado State Patrol troopers say their investigation is still under way, but so far they think Wayland's death was her fault.

The tour

Conditions were perfect the afternoon Wayland and her husband, Jeff Thorpe, went snowmobiling. The sun was shining, the roads were clear and Wayland and Thorpe looked forward to a perfect day, Schupra said.

Wayland owned a travel agency in Michigan and often came to Routt County to snowmobile, he said.

Schupra said Thorpe told him days after the accident that he and Wayland were in the back of a Steamboat Snowmobile Tours group of about nine people. Thorpe said Wayland pulled out behind the tour guide so she wouldn't run into a "pokey" rider who had been making her uncomfortable earlier in the tour, Schupra said.

He said Thorpe told him that as the group made its way to the Dumont Lake parking area, the guide crossed U.S. 40 first and then "waved Carol to cross, and as soon as she got out into the road, she was hit by the truck."

But tour operators Marcia and Jason Cobb say that's not what happened.

"He did not wave her across the road," Marcia Cobb said.

"He told her to wait for his signal that it was safe to cross -- which he had not given. This is an accident. He didn't do anything wrong."

Marcia Cobb said the Colo--rado State Patrol troopers in----vestigating the accident interviewed the guide at the scene and had him prepare a written statement.

"He is an awesome guide," she said.

"He's been a professional guide for years. As we do with every tour, we give another orientation about crossing roads right as the group reaches a road. It's always the same. You stop, the guide signals and you cross. She didn't even look when she crossed the road."

The investigation

Colorado State Patrol Trooper Rick Kaspar said the investigation into Wayland's death probably will take another two or three weeks to complete because he is gathering information from witnesses, some of whom don't live in Colorado.

But Kaspar said he was confident that Wayland's death was her fault.

It's legal in Colorado for snowmobiles to cross highways, but there are rules riders are supposed to follow.

One is to stop completely before crossing and another is to yield to oncoming traffic. Wayland failed to do both, Kaspar said.

Kaspar said that based on interviews he has conducted, Wayland pulled out onto U.S. Highway 40 from the plowed parking area without looking to her left, the direction from which the semi was coming.

The area where Wayland was idling before she pulled onto the road is commonly used to park snowmobile trailers and other vehicles and to access the Dumont Lake area, Kaspar said.

On that day, he said, snow banks that sandwiched the parking lot were 7 to 10 feet tall, but he estimated Wayland could have seen almost a half-mile in both directions and that parked vehicles should not have obstructed her view significantly.

The semi's driver, Steven Bush, 54, of Craig, was traveling about 50 mph in the moments before the accident and had slowed to about 40 mph when he hit Wayland, Kaspar said. The speed limit there is 65 mph.

Kaspar said Bush told him he was able to see Wayland and never saw her head turn to look to the left before she entered the road.

Bush was not cited for the accident.

Kaspar said he had spoken with Thorpe, Walsh and several of the other tour group riders but was still trying to get more witness statements before closing the case.

He said it was possible that he would conclude that the tour guide was responsible for Wayland's death based on those the uncollected witness statements.

Kaspar said the guide told him he was telling the group to stop.

"He said both of his palms were up in front of his chest signaling a stopping motion," Kaspar said. "However, I have received a contradictory statement from someone who said he saw him put his palms up and wrinkle his fingers, which the witness read as come forward," he said.

"I have to no reason to believe the guide was at fault at this point," Kaspar said. "I'm standing by my thought that (Wayland) was responsible."

If the investigation led him to think the guide was responsible for Wayland's death, the case would be referred to the Grand County District Attorney's Office because the accident occurred in that county, Kaspar said.

He said that in 5 1/2 years working here, he could only remember three other collisions between snowmobiles and cars or trucks. None of those was fatal, and riders received only minor injuries, he said.

The location

Cobb said she had never received complaints from motorists or snowmobile riders that the Dumont Lake area was particularly dangerous.

"That area has been used for years, not just by us but by other private riders, as well," she said.

Others have been worried, how--ever.

Mark Satre, who had been snowmobiling for more than 30 years, said he was always pushing for more parking in the area because he was concerned with the general safety of crossing U.S. 40.

Satre is president of the Routt Powder Riders, a snowmobile organization with local and out-of-state members. The group is one of the oldest snowmobile organizations in the county.

"If the parking were off the road, then the snowmobilers that were crossing the road would be able to see 100 percent better," he said.

"I think that parking area up there definitely contributed to that accident," he said.

"We're all snowmobilers. We've all crossed that road where (Wayland) got hit. It is scary," he said.

Satre, like Cobb, said he had never received complaints that crossing that stretch of U.S. 40 was dangerous. But Satre said things could be done to help motorists and snowmobilers.

"When the snow banks get high like that on the side of the road, it's hard to see, even though that road is a straight-away and there's no reason for an accident like that to have happened," he said.

"There probably should be signs letting people know snowmobiles cross in that area."

Director Stacey Stegman said the Colorado Department of Transportation would be responsible for putting up such signs or reducing the speed limit on that stretch of road. She said she didn't see that happening in the near future because the area had not been designated as a problem.

"I've worked at (CDOT) for 10 years and I have never heard of major snowmobile accidents there," she said.

"I've actually never heard of snowmobiles being an issue. Bicycles on U.S. 40 tend to be more of an issue than snowmobiles."

The stretch from Colorado Highway 14 and U.S. 40 to the Dumont Lake area was fatality free in 2003 and 2004, which makes it relatively safe in the department's eyes, Stegman said.

Still, to Wayland's friend, something needs to be done.

"In any accident death, I would hope that people who have the power to help can make a safer crossing, so that no family or person has to go through this. It just makes sense to take a look," Schupra said.

--To reach Alexis DeLaCruz, call 871-4234

or e-mail adelacruz@steamboatpilot.com

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