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Hazards of Driving in Altitude

by  on  Car & Motor Vehicle Accidents

Hitting the road in Colorado can pose some unique hazards stemming from the state’s rugged terrain and harsh weather. That’s not to mention the challenges that come with driving in high elevations in places like Denver and mountain communities across the state.

Altitude can have a significant impact both on drivers and their vehicles. Why? Because conditions are often unpredictable and car accidents are unfortunately common. 

How Altitude Affects Drivers

Altitude has been shown to have a wide range of impacts on the human body. That said, drivers traveling in places where the elevation is more than 5,000 feet above sea level should be aware of these effects, which often become more acute at 8,000 feet and higher.

One of the biggest changes with altitude is that it makes it harder for people to breathe. That often results in increased fatigue and a number of other physical responses. The air is colder, less dense and contains less oxygen. That can put a strain on breathing for otherwise healthy people. It can be disastrous for those who have certain medical conditions that already impact breathing, like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

At the same time, adapting to altitude requires the heart to do more work because there is less oxygen in the air. Heart rates and blood pressures often spike beyond 8,000 feet, which is particularly problematic for people with heart disease and other certain existing health conditions.

Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness is a particular medical condition that can occur at high elevations. It typically happens when people travel to higher altitudes too quickly, restricting access to oxygen at a fast clip.

The symptoms are often described as similar to a bad hangover. They include severe headaches, as well as nausea, dizziness, fatigue and loss of appetite. Shortness of breath is also often a sign of oncoming altitude sickness.

The best way to avoid such sickness is to move gradually when climbing elevations, whether it is in a car, by foot or via other modes of transportation. It is also important to drink lots of water because changes in altitude can lead to dehydration.

How Altitude Affects Your Vehicle

Driving at higher altitudes can also have varying effects on your car.

Perhaps the biggest is the effect on a vehicle’s engine performance. Cars lose power as altitude increases because the falling oxygen levels mean less air for the internal combustion engine to pump. Vehicles generally lose about 3% of power for every 1,000 feet of altitude gained. That makes it hard for vehicles to accelerate and climb.

Engines can also run off of lower octane fuel in higher altitudes than elsewhere. That is why you may see gas stations selling fuel with octane levels as low as 85 in certain parts of Colorado. The problem is that this fuel can harm your car if you return to lower altitudes with the gas still in the tank.

Altitude may also reduce tire pressure. This can result in a number of problems, including creating less steering control, lower fuel efficiency and even tire blowouts.

Finally, driving in mountains often means more wear and tear on brakes. Drivers should have their brakes inspected regularly and pads replaced as needed.

Auto Accidents at High Altitudes

Altitude can make otherwise manageable problems disastrous, whether it is a medical condition for a driver or an issue with a vehicle. 

For example, driver fatigue is a leading cause of crashes in Colorado and across the country. About 1 in 25 adult drivers reports falling asleep behind the wheel every 30 days, according to the American Automobile Association. More than 6,400 people are killed in collisions caused by drowsy driving every year, AAA says.

Because driving at altitude often increases fatigue it also increases the risk of a drowsy driving crash. The risk is even higher if a driver is suffering from altitude sickness, not used to driving with less motor power in altitude or driving on underinflated tires.

Emergency situations may be exacerbated if they arise in more remote mountain or rural areas where it is more difficult to get immediate assistance.

What to Do After a Car Accident at Altitude

The immediate aftermath of an accident can be a stressful and confusing time. It is important to take certain steps to protect yourself and your rights.

The physical safety and well-being of you and others involved in a crash should be the priority when accidents happen. Seek immediate emergency medical attention for anyone who has been injured in the accident

Otherwise, alert local police to make them aware of the accident. A police officer arriving on the scene will talk to the drivers involved in the crash and take witness statements. The officer will also observe skid marks, vehicle damage and other evidence. 

Getting a police report makes it easier to get insurance coverage for the accident and can go a long way in establishing who is legally responsible for the accident. An experienced auto accident attorney can also play a vital role in investigating the crash, determining liability and maximizing the compensation to which you are entitled.

If your vehicle can still be safely operated, move it to the shoulder of the road to avoid oncoming traffic. Also, use hazard lights to alert other vehicles to your stopped car. This reduces the risk of a second crash, which can cause even more damage and additional injuries.

If you or anyone in your vehicle experienced sickness due to altitude, get the help you need from medical professionals, the police and a skilled legal professional.