Mon February 21, 2011

Death Toll Drops on Colorado Highways

The number of people killed on Colorado highways dropped another five percent last year to 439, continuing a dramatic decline in the state’s road death toll.

Nine years ago, 743 people died on highways across the state. That’s fully 304 more than in 2010, according to the Colorado State Patrol.

Troopers are aiming for zero deaths on Colorado highways by 2025. It seems increasingly possible.

Officials credit the increased safety to a variety of factors. Safer cars hold the road better, and cradle passengers in what amounts to steel cages complete with airbags. The state has built better roads, with rumble strips lining the center of rural two-lane highways to prevent head-on collisions. Emergency medical providers now know more about how to save broken bodies. Troopers target certain roads and times.

Colorado State Patrol Sgt. John Hahn also wants everyone to face up to the reality that car crashes are rarely true accidents. “The crashes that we see in this country are preventable,” said Hahn. They’re caused by things drivers could have done differently, by reducing speed or not being distracted.

Even allowing liquor sales on Sunday could not detour Colorado’s continuing decline in highway deaths.

When the state legislature ended one of the state’s blue laws and allowed sales of alcohol on Sundays in June of 2008, alcohol sales taxes jumped 6 percent. Critics feared the ability to buy alcohol one more day a week could not help but cause a spike in deadly drunk driving crashes.

Instead, the number of drunk driving deaths on Colorado highways on Sundays plummeted, from 20 in 2009 to just six in 2010, according to state patrol spokeswoman Trooper Heather Cobler. Troopers also issued 1,100 fewer drunk-driving tickets to drivers not involved in crashes, with the 2010 total dropping to 4,964.

“That tells me people are making smarter decisions, and not getting behind the wheel when they are drinking,” Cobler said.

Wayne Williams, El Paso County Clerk & Recorder and a longtime member of the state Transportation Advisory Committee, also cites low-tech solutions like Colorado’s practice of changing speed limits to match the speed of everyday traffic.

“If some are driving fast and some are driving slow, that causes more accidents that people driving at the same speed,” Williams said.

The state also has been adding shoulders to highways.  “That gives you a space where you can safely correct” before going off the road, he said.

Emily Tompkins, executive director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving of Colorado, also credits an increased use of ignition interlocks. Drivers must breathe into the lock and prove they are not impaired, or their cars won’t run, she explained. In Colorado, first-time offenders can get their licenses reinstated sooner if they lease an ignition interlock.

A study in neighboring New Mexico found use of ignition interlocks decreased alcohol-related fatalities there by 20 percent, Tompkins said. “And it costs less than a drink a day.”

Across Colorado, troopers target the most dangerous roads with extra patrols, tickets, warning stops and education. Trooper Cobler said she has personally worked one of these targeted sections – U.S. 36 just west of I-25, connecting to a short piece of I-270 just east of I-25. The surrounding neighborhood there is heavily Hispanic, Cobler noted, and trooper’s educated residents about the potential dangers via Spanish-language television and DUI warnings at local bars. Crashes dropped, and fatalities dropped from one to the target of zero, Cobler said.

Many consider deadly crashes as an unavoidable possibility when they are driving, but CSP Sgt. John Hahn says that is not true. “It’s not an accident. It’s a crash,” he said. And most of those crashes are caused by something avoidable: speeding, not paying attention, driving too fast on ice, following too close, he said. “We can do something about those.”

The CSP also conducts “Alive at 25” classes. There, Hahn asks young drivers if the last text message on their phones was really more important than paying attention when moving at 102 feet per second.

Cobler offers a few ways to arrive in one piece: Make sure seat belts are fastened, and stick to the speed limit. And watch the road instead of the radio dial or your phone.

Jeremy Hoover contributed to this story.

Dangerous Highways

The Colorado State Patrol warns that these stretches of highway are among the most dangerous in the state. The Patrol has targeted them for extra enforcement in its drive to cut the number of deaths on state highways to zero by 2025.

Road description


I-25:North of I-70 to 84th Avenue


I-25:From Woodmen Road to the El-Paso/Douglas County line

El Paso

I-25:From County Road 6 to Hwy 14 in Fort Collins


I-70:From the Grand Junction Business Route to the Mesa/Garfield county line


I-70:A 25-mile section from the Eagle Business Route to the junction of Hwy 6 and Hwy 24 at Minturn


I-70:From four miles west of the Summit/Clear Creek county line at the Eisenhower Tunnel to four miles west of Silver Plume

Clear Creek/Summit

Hwy 172:A 14-mile section between Ignacio and the New Mexico border

La Plata

Hwy 285:From Hwy 17 to Hwy 160 in Alamosa


Hwy 285:A 56-mile stretch from Hwy 112 to the Saguache/Chaffee county line


Hwy 160:From Hwy 159 in Ft. Garland to the Costilla/Huerfano county line


Hwy 160:North of Pagosa Springs toward South Fork for 25 miles

Rio Grande

Hwy 92:From north of Hwy 50 to Hwy 133


Area bounded by U.S. 285, C-470, Wadsworth and Sheridan Boulevards


Hwy 40:South of Steamboat Springs for 30 miles


Hwy 50:A 10-mile stretch near Pueblo West


Hwy 550:From Hwy 62 to just east of Montrose





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