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Highway Death Toll Rises As Colorado State Patrol Enforcement Drops

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Colorado Department of Transportation

The Colorado State Patrol dramatically reduced enforcement of highway safety in 2011 and 2012. During those years, traffic-related deaths on state highways spiked.

Troopers issued fewer tickets, made fewer arrests and stopped fewer drivers, according to the patrol’s own data.

The rise in highway fatalities was striking because it reversed a dramatic 9-year decline. The changes came under the watch of then-patrol Chief James Wolfinbarger. During the 4 years Wolfinbarger was in command, the state patrol changed its strategy for reducing highway deaths.

For example, the patrol previously had specific goals, such as cutting fatal and injury crashes on the worst roads by 6 percent in 2009. It actually achieved 14 percent. But by 2011, Wolfinbarger’s patrol had abandoned such specific targets in favor of a vague goal to “maximize intelligence-led strategies to protect life and property.”

Credit Colorado State Patrol
Colorado State Patrol

In January, the State of Colorado paid Wolfinbarger $90,000 to retire at age 42. Both sides agreed not to discuss reasons for his unexpected departure. However the retirement came after the state patrol lost two legal cases.

One involved anti-gay discrimination; the other was a $1 million settlement in January in the high-profile, wrongful death of Jason Kemp. In 2010, the Grand Junction man was shot after troopers broke down his front door after Kemp refused to let them enter his home without a search warrant.  

The state patrol refused to answer questions about Wolfinbarger’s departure, citing the contract termination agreement. Wolfinbarger did not return a call to his home in Douglas County.

The patrol’s data shows that from 2009 to 2011:

  • The number of impaired driving arrests dropped by 21 percent, from 8,035 to 6,381.
  • The number of speeding tickets issued declined by 17 percent, from 88,911 to 73,765.
  • The number of tickets issued for failure to wear seat belts dropped by 37 percent, from 41,100 to 26,011.

In an interview with Colorado Public News, interim Chief Scott Hernandez termed the 29 additional highway deaths as “a lot.” “It’s people. It’s devastating to the families,” Hernandez said. “Personally, it’s heartbreaking.”

He acknowledged “there could be a link,” in the rise in highway deaths coming at the same time as the decline in enforcement – and something the department will need to examine.

Chris Halsor, a traffic prosecutor with the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, noted that safer cars, safer highways and increased awareness of safety issues contributed to the state’s 9-year decline in highway deaths, before the numbers began ticking upward in 2011.  

But “enforcement tends to be one of the best measures for basically causing a reduction in these things,” Halsor added. “When (people) see that law enforcement officer on the side of the road, they check themselves, or they think to themselves, ‘I shouldn’t be drinking tonight’ or ‘I really should put my cell phone down while I’m driving.’”

Patrol data shows that during 2011 and 2012, troopers also seriously reduced their contacts with drivers, even those not resulting in a ticket. When on special overtime patrols to find drunk drivers and enforce seat belt use, troopers cut their contacts with drivers by nearly two-thirds from 2011 to 2012.

“I don’t know exactly why,” Hernandez said of the decline in troopers’ contacts.

Some troopers may have stopped fewer people because they were looking for more telltale signs of a drunk driver, he said. For example, a trooper might focus on drivers turning wide instead of tightly around a corner, because drivers rarely do that unless they are intoxicated, he said.

Hernandez also said required extra training may have taken troopers off the road and led to fewer tickets. All 750 officers took four hours of training on Fourth Amendment protections on search and seizure last year – training that was mandated after Kemp was shot and killed after asking officers for a search warrant.

Hernandez said the patrol hasn’t yet analyzed the enforcement data or changed policy. But he did say troopers would be emphasizing impaired driving this year.

The Colorado Department of Public Safety reports of the vehicle occupants killed on highways in the state in 2011:

  • two-thirds were not wearing seat belts
  •   41 percent of deaths involved speeding
  • One-third involved a drunk driver.

The Colorado Department of Transportation pays for the overtime patrols on drunk driving and seat belt use from its budget.

CDOT spokeswoman Emily Wolfing said her department is working with the patrol to make sure the overtime achieves the goal of reducing deaths. There are no quotas for troopers, for tickets or for contacts with the public, she said.

Colorado Public News is created in partnership with Colorado Public Television 12, Denver’s independent PBS station. It is led by editor Ann Imse. Others on the Colorado Public News team include:Cara DeGette, managing editorNoelle Leavitt, recruiting and social media directorSonya Doctorian, video journalistDrew Jaynes, webmaster and photographerJournalists Bill Scanlon, Dennis Huspeni, Jody Berger, Sara Burnett, Jerd Smith, Michele Conklin, Andy Piper, Lauren Rickel, Raj Sharan, Amanda TurnerRobert D. Tonsing, publication designer and entrepreneur
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