In light of Colorado seeing almost 700 traffic-related deaths last year, the Colorado Department of Transportation and Colorado State Patrol are pushing folks to take responsibility and make safer choices on the road.
The 672 deaths recorded in 2021 are the most the state has seen on its roadways since 2002, and CDOT expects that number to grow as it continues to receive and review crash reports from late in the year.
State Patrol Chief Matthew Packard said in a news conference Tuesday, Jan. 18, that being on Colorado’s roadways is likely one of the most dangerous things people do every day.
“One of the most important things that we do — engage in safe transportation, safe traffic — has fallen off the radar,” Packard said, citing the pandemic as a stressor that has shifted people’s priorities. “It’s something that people are not giving the attention that it deserves. … It’s appalling to me to think that that many people senselessly lose their lives in something that we do every day.”
Packard said law enforcement visibility on the roads is a deterrent for reckless driving, but personal accountability is the best solution to reduce crashes. He said seat belt use went down in 2021, putting the state behind the national rate, and impaired and distracted driving both increased. Also becoming more common is folks driving at extremely high speeds up to 90 and 100 mph.
Breaking it down, fatalities involving impaired drivers increased 16% from 212 in 2020 to 246 in 2021. Of all the traffic deaths last year, fatalities involving vehicle occupants were up 22%. Vehicle drivers and passengers accounted for the majority at 65%. Motorcyclists accounted for 20%, pedestrians were 13%, and bicyclists were 2%.
When it comes to areas of particular concern, Packard said the Interstate 70 mountain corridor, which runs through Summit County, was one of the common problem areas. State Patrol is also responsible for U.S. Highway 6 and Colorado Highway 9. The three major roads account for the majority of traffic deaths in Summit County.
Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said roads for which the sheriff’s office is responsible didn’t see any traffic-related deaths last year. He said his office has a traffic safety unit with a deputy who focuses on traffic enforcement and safety on unincorporated Summit County roads and in school zones and subdivisions.
FitzSimons said the unit also responds to complaints, and deputies will help with traffic enforcement when available.
Sam Cole, traffic safety communications manager with CDOT, noted that despite there being fewer drivers on the road in 2020 during the start of the pandemic, traffic deaths were still up, a trend that continued into 2021. Cole wrote in an email that there were six traffic-related deaths in Summit County in 2021, one of which was due to impaired driving. In 2020, Summit County had only one traffic-related death.
John Lorme, CDOT’s director of maintenance and operations, pointed out that the number of deaths in 2021 is almost 50% higher than they were in 2011, but Colorado’s population hasn’t grown to the same degree. Behavior is just changing, he said.
“This problem can only be solved if we all participate in trying to find a reasonable solution,” Lorme said. “Drivers must do their part. We must recommit ourselves to safety.”
Colorado Springs Police Chief Vincent Niski reiterated that reckless driving is a personal choice and said that in an ideal world, law enforcement wouldn’t need to ticket and enforce traffic laws if folks make the simple decision to comply. He said law enforcement alone cannot fix the issue.
“If you look at all the causations we’ve talked about today that cause accidents, those are personal choices,” Niski said during the news conference. “A lot of it’s not infrastructure. A lot of it’s not about public transit. It’s about a personal choice to run a red light … to drive 100 miles per hour down a roadway … to run a stop sign and crash into another vehicle.”