- Courtesy VTrans
- A truck stuck in Smuggler's Notch
The truck drivers — who are interviewed after their vehicles have been towed ignominiously from the Notch and they've been fined heavily — are likely to say they trusted the GPS more than the state’s signs that warned trucks wouldn’t fit.
“I suspect ego is a part of it, and efficacy is a part of it: They just want to get there fast, and get their day done,” said Sears, the deputy bureau chief for operations and safety at VTrans, the Vermont Agency of Transportation. He is trying to lower the number of stuck trucks, now at about five a season, to zero.
While some have attributed the misguided passage to language problems, Sears said almost all the drivers who've been interviewed speak English. They just trust their GPS more than they do the many warning signs they pass, starting miles from the Notch on Route 15 and Interstate 89.
“We know what the GPS is telling you to do, and we know you don’t believe the signs,” Sears said. “I’m sympathetic to the GPS thing, but read our signs.”
Sears knows he can’t change the drivers, who tend to be from out of state and unfamiliar with the road. But he’s working on changing the conditions that draw trucks to the Notch, a beloved steep, winding and scenic mountain pass that includes a heavily visited state park. Lined by 1,000-foot cliffs, the road closes seasonally each winter.
Plenty of people have already gotten in touch with Sears to share their ideas, such as dynamiting the huge boulders that force the road to curve.
“Very practical-minded people have suggested that,” Sears said. “That is not in play. It’s beautiful up there.”
The meeting is part of a process than began in July 2021, when VTrans and its partners, including the Lamoille County Planning Commission, started researching solutions. The mission is to release a report with solutions in March.
The ideas at play include the construction of roundabouts on both sides of the Notch where trucks could turn around; improving signage; and installation of a structure that would limit truck heights. (While length is what stops trailers from passing through, Sears noted that the long trailers tend to be taller than most trucks.)
Local officials are trying to preserve the natural look of the area, which lies on a shoulder of Mount Mansfield, Vermont's tallest peak.
"There's talk of putting up a special gate that a tractor trailer couldn't get through, but they’re trying not to make it look overly manmade," said Scott Brinkman, EMS chief for the nearby town of Stowe. The Notch itself is in Cambridge. "It's a unique space that speaks to the rugged terrain of what the Green Mountains are about."
Johnson resident Aida Bull, who sometimes commutes to work through the Notch, said the digital signage isn’t clear enough.
"The signs abbreviate 'Tractor Trailer' as 'TT,' Bull wrote in an email, adding, “I have never seen it abbreviated that way in all my years driving, so it seems safe to say neither have truck drivers.”
VTrans is also working with GPS providers to correct the information that sends trucks over the Notch. They’ve been successful in changing the route on some small, specialized GPS systems, but working with large companies such as Apple and Google is slow going.
"They’re not particularly responsive to very, very low-frequency events," Sears said. "And these are low-frequency events."
Rare as the stuck-truck incidents are, they irritate drivers who have to wait as long as three hours for the trailer to be removed, and they result in fines of as much as $4,000 for the truck drivers. The legislature upped the penalty amount in 2016.
Sears said he thinks the solution will involve an array of approaches. He noted that the number of incidents has dropped over the years. The average until recently was eight per year, with highs of 12 incidents in 2013, 2014 and 2017.
“I try to stay positive and look at what we have done over the past years, which is lower those numbers significantly,” he said. “That’s not something the public is getting. I’d like people to realize it’s an improving situation, but it’s certainly not perfect.”