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Driving You Crazy: Does the red pavement on Wyoming highways make the road safer?

It's easier to see the multi-colored lane markings
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Posted at 8:11 AM, Sep 22, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-22 10:48:58-04

I love to take road trips. I find it very peaceful to drive to distant places. I also like to see how other states construct and maintain their roads. On my recent trip to Mount Rushmore for a wedding, I noticed a stretch of highway in Wyoming that caught my eye.

The pavement was red, not black, like we see in Colorado.

I was on US Highway 18/85, north of the small town of Lusk. Not only were the travel lanes red, but the middle of the road was black where the double yellow line is and a rumble strip was added. The white lines on the shoulder were also painted on blacktop with a rumble strip.

My first thought was it was all intentional. Maybe this was a safety test area where the road surface was created with a higher visibility than normal and the contrast between the red and black and yellow made it safer for drivers, especially at night, to see the road in a place where there are no street lights for miles and miles and miles.

Jeff Goetz, Wyoming DOT District 2 public relations specialist, told me the unique look to the highway is not as exciting as I hoped it would be.

“The aggregate used in the chip seal looks to have a high concentration of scoria rock in it which gives it the red color. Crews then came back in and milled the centerline for the rumble strips. Once the rumble strips are milled, they'll go over the top with a sealer. That's the dark black. Then they'll stripe over the top,” said Goetz.

You might know scoria by its more common name, lava rock. It is an extremely vesicular basaltic lava with very small vesicles and very lightweight. You can find scoria all over North America. The red variety is commonly used as landscaping rock at Taco Bell.

There are many other sections of highways and interstates that are red throughout Wyoming. Some drivers have posted videos of their drive along the odd sections of red road, especially along I-80 that runs across the southern part of the state. 

MORE: Read more traffic issues driving people crazy

Chip seal is thin. It's usually put over the top of fresh asphalt to help strengthen it and give it some friction. Goetz told me the contrast between the colors is most dramatic right after the chip seal and sealant work is complete.

“It is dramatic in the contrast, however, it's short-lived. As with all asphalt, the sun will fade it all to grey eventually. But for now, it looks good,” Goetz said.

Even though the contrast in colors wasn’t on purpose, maybe my talk with Goetz got him thinking it could be useful to make night time driving on highways that are not well traveled a little safer. Or maybe it will just end up being the musings of a traveling traffic guy.

Denver7 traffic reporter Jayson Luber says he has been covering Denver-metro traffic since Ben-Hur was driving a chariot. (We believe the actual number is about 20 years.) He's obsessed with letting viewers know what's happening on their drive and the best way to avoid the problems that spring up. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter