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What's behind the dramatic rise in Colorado traffic deaths? The stats, trends and what needs to change

In this Denver7 360 In-Depth Report, we’ll break down what’s changed and show you where the most fatalities happened in Colorado last year.
Posted: 5:32 PM, Jan 24, 2023
Updated: 2023-01-24 19:35:07-05
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DENVER — Statewide traffic fatality data released by the Colorado Department of Transportation on Monday showed a troubling trend on Colorado roadways.

Stats reveal there were 745 fatalities in 2022, which is the most roadway deaths since 1981.

In fact, total yearly traffic fatalities are on the rise over the past 10 years, up 57 percent. This is a reversal from the previous 30 years which showed deaths were on the decline, according to CDOT.

Impaired driving deaths also rose dramatically seeing a 60 percent increase since 2019.

In this Denver7 360 In-Depth Report, we’ll break down what’s changed and show you where the most fatalities happened in Colorado last year.

Also in this report:

  • What’s behind the increase in fatalities
  • What the state is doing to turn around the deadly trend
  • Growing concerns about impaired driving, including THC use.
  • How a Colorado mother is making a difference after losing losing her son
  • How to report dangerous drivers

A fatal traffic crash problem across the state

Colorado drivers seem to agree there’s a problem. In a yearly survey released earlier last year, drivers in the state admitted to behaviors that put themselves and others at risk.

19 percent self-reported driving over the speed limit most, or all of the time. And according to CDOT’s 2022 Colorado Driver Behavior Survey, 10 percent said they never stopped for pedestrians who weren’t using a crosswalk.

While that is a 3 percent drop from the previous year, it is a statistic to consider as Denver’s city council debates decriminalizing jaywalking.

In terms of distracted driving, 63 percent of drivers said they eat or drink while operating a vehicle and 28 percent read text messages while driving, according to CDOT’s survey.

And when it comes to impaired driving, 7 percent of drivers admitted they drove within a couple of hours after using cannabis.

On a positive note, 89 percent said they buckle up all the time and drivers admitted to being less likely to speed on neighborhood roads.

But there’s one number officials stressed during this week’s update.

“As we sit here today, the number is 745, about 745. It's nearing 750. As the data continues to trickle in. That's 750 people that lost their lives. These are loved ones, these are friends, these are neighbors, their family members, cousins and aunts and sons and daughters and members of our community.” said Col. Matthew C. Packard, chief of the Colorado State Patrol.

745 roadway deaths on Colorado roads is the highest since 1981. And the trend is going in the wrong direction.

The rate of fatal crashes was on the decline for three decades but that began to change in 2012, steadily increasing each year.

A deadly trend

County-by-county breakdown

In Colorado, El Paso County had 83 traffic fatalities in 2022 which is the most for any county in the state. Adams County followed with 82 and Denver County had 67 roadway deaths.

  • 56 in Arapahoe County
  • 53 in Weld County
  • 46 in Jefferson County

To understand what’s behind the increases and what needs to change, state officials say it needs to start with Colorado drivers changing behaviors.

“We are seeing more aggressive driving. We're seeing folks taking more chances driving at higher speeds driving more recklessly.” said chief Packard.

“All you have to do is listen to the radio, as our troopers are out there working the road, you can hear these reports of aggressive high speed dangerous driving, it's occurring around the state.”

And while distracted and aggressive driving continues to be a problem, CSP chief Packard singled out an increase in drivers getting behind the wheel while impaired.

“We talk a lot about the causal factors that are leading these. But I'll tell you the one that continues to boggle my mind, we can read headlines from this weekend about impaired drivers causing fatal crashes.” said Packard.

Colorado State Patrol saw a 7 percent increase in impaired driving as a cause of a fatal crash in 2022, when compared to the previous year.

Driving under the influence of alcohol remains a leading cause of fatal crashes, but there’s an increase in drivers who are getting behind the wheel while under other substances.

“Impaired driving is getting more complicated. Often drivers are under the influence of one or more drugs, which can increase the level of their impairment greatly. Fatal crashes involving a suspected impaired driver are up by almost 60% since 2019.” said Keith Stafanik, CDOT Chief Engineer.

He noted there’s a steady increase in the number of drivers above the legal limit for THC.

Mother whose son was killed by suspected impaired driver vows to make a difference on Colorado roads

Also on the rise are fatal accidents involving pedestrians and motorcycles. In 2022, 36 percent of people killed in a traffic-related fatal accident were not inside of a vehicle. Motorcycle and pedestrian fatalities were the highest since 1975.

“We've actually seen an increase in pedestrians at fault in these crashes.” said Packard.“Whether it's crossing the road and unlit or otherwise unsafe situations or going against the traffic signals, all of those things are there for your safety, whether you're behind the wheel, or on the soles of your shoes.”

CDOT stats show bicyclist deaths in Colorado have been on the decline the past few years after peaking at 22 fatalities in 2018. In 2022, there were 12 fatalities.

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Whether it involves vehicles, pedestrians or motorcycles it’s not just fatal crashes on the rise. CDOT also reported there are 5 serious injuries for every reported fatality.

What’s being done to reverse the trend?

The state’s safety focus is in four different key areas: Roads, drivers, people and post-crash care.

When it comes to the human factors involved with navigating roads, engineers look to design infrastructure to account for mistakes people typically make while driving.

Keith Stefanik, CDOT chief engineer said an example among others is developing roundabouts instead of traditional four-way intersections.

“Increased use of cable rail rumble strips to keep the vehicles on the road, improved striping, and much more. Some of the most important work is protecting pedestrians and bicyclists bicyclists. Engineering improvements can go a long way.” said Stefanik.

He said CDOT has awarded $63 million for over 200 community programs to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety in Colorado

On improving driver safety, CDOT is focusing on awareness to create a safer driving culture on the roads. Stefanik pointed to an awareness campaign launched this past week in El Paso County designed to target younger drivers it says are prone to speeding and risky behaviors behind the wheel.

CDOT is also working on other efforts such as releasing an audiobook version of the state’s driver handbook and providing more resources to help new drivers learn the rules of the road. For families concerned about senior drivers, CDOT will provide new resources to help have tough conversations.

How to report dangerous drivers

Since 1998, motorists in Colorado can dial *CSP or *277 to report aggressive or dangerous driving. The Colorado State Patrol Star CSP program has received more than 230,000 reports of aggressive driving, according to its website.

CSP said logistically it can be a challenge to have a trooper in a position in the right spot when a call comes in but calls are received and reports are tracked and often shared with other law enforcement agencies.

“And a lot of times we're listening to each other's radio. So it might not even be a trooper that makes that contact, it may be a deputy or a police officer. Or it might tie into some other long standing thing that's going on with someone's poor driving across multiple jurisdictions.” said chief Packard.

CPS advises never try to make contact with an aggressive driver and to stay out of the way to avoid escalating the situation. When calling the hotline, vehicle description, license plate information, driver description and the aggressive behavior witnessed are helpful.

If it is a life threatening situation, call 911.


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