Traffic fatalities in Colorado drop in 2018 after six years of rising

Sawyer D'Argonne
Summit Daily News
Special to the Vail DailyA multi-car pileup involving at least two dozen cars, along with other crashes, stuck vehicles and jack-knifed semi-trucks closed I-70 on Vail Pass

After years of steadily increasing traffic fatalities in Colorado, the numbers may finally be starting to stabilize in 2018, according to data from the Colorado Department of Transportation.

So far this year — relying on data last updated on Dec. 17 — Colorado has endured more than 582 fatalities on its roadways. And while that number is certainly more substantial than residents and state officials would like, it also represents a slight dip from recent years.

Following a decline in traffic fatalities from the early 2000s until 2011, the numbers quickly began to increase. From 447 fatalities in 2011, Colorado saw the number of roadway deaths increase by more than 40 percent into 2017 with 648 deaths, the most in any year since 2004. But officials are hopeful that 2018 will spur a new trend in reductions of roadway fatalities.

“The fact that we’re finally starting to see fatalities level off is encouraging,” said Sam Cole, traffic safety communications manager with CDOT. “We had 648 last year, and this year we’ll have around 600. But every fatality is one too many, and every one of them was preventable. That’s why we don’t call them accidents, we call them crashes. Every one is related to somebody’s poor choice.”

In CDOT’s Region 3 — which includes Eagle County along with the northwest portion of the state — the trends are relatively consistent. There were 55 traffic fatalities in 2013, which grew to almost 80 in 2017, a more than 40 percent increase over the last five years. So far this year there have been only 51 deaths within the region.

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Recent trends point to a number of possible explanations for why fatalities have been up in recent years. Perhaps the most obvious reason is Colorado’s ever-growing population. The state currently has a population of about 5.6 million people, compared to just 4.9 million a decade ago. Population growth is closely related to vehicle miles traveled, a predictor of crash incidences that has also shown considerable growth over the last few years.

But population growth alone can’t tell the whole story.

“Statewide we’re only growing by about 1.5 percentage points per year,” said Cole. “But we’re looking at much bigger increases in traffic fatalities. It has to do with people’s poor driving behavior like speeding, not buckling up or driving impaired.”

Cole said that while part of the problem stems from an increase in pedestrian and cyclist deaths in urban area of the state — those fatalities have increased 100 percent over the last five years — a majority of deaths still come from individuals driving impaired, failing to wear their seatbelts and speeding.

“I don’t think there’s a big difference from region to region,” said Cole. “The traffic fatalities on our roadways are amazingly consistent. If we could continue to tackle those three main factors we’d bring down fatalities considerably. If we got to 100 percent seatbelt usage, it would save upwards of 60 lives a year. If we could take drunk drivers off the roadways it would save 100 to 200 lives a year. You could really make a big dent.”

Cole said that, along with this year’s decline in fatalities, there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of roadway safety in Colorado. He said that despite relatively low seatbelt usage rates, and the upwards trend of drunk driving in the state, those numbers could be much higher without the state’s safe driving campaigns like The Heat is On and Click It or Ticket. He also noted that Colorado is ranked first in the country in the usage of smartphone Breathalyzers.

Cole said that there are also other tools to help drivers be safer on the roadways, such as “do not disturb” features on smartphones to help prevent distracted driving.

But ultimately, it’s up to each individual driver to make sure they’re taking the necessary steps to stay safe on the roadways.

“It does look like we’re finally at a breaking point where fatalities will finally be stabilizing,” said Cole. “Though, one year does not make a trend. We need people in 2019 to be extra diligent when they’re on the roads. … Over 90 percent of crashes are related to somebody’s behavior, and not a rock fall or the design of the roadway. The good news is we can control that. It’s in our ability to bring these traffic fatalities down. We just need the perseverance to do so.”


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