Traf­fic fa­tal­i­ties surge


The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By El­iz­a­beth Her­nan­dez

Colorado of­fi­cials are re­dou­bling safety ef­forts and boost­ing education ini­tia­tives af­ter the dead­li­est year of traf­fic fa­tal­i­ties since 2008 and a record-break­ing num­ber of mo­tor­cy­cle deaths.

Last year, 545 peo­ple died in Colorado traf­fic ac­ci­dents, an 11.7 per­cent in­crease from the 488 traf­fic deaths recorded in 2014, ac­cord­ing to the Colorado Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion. It was the first year since 2008 that Colorado had recorded more than 500 traf­fic deaths.

CDOT said the odds of dy­ing in a traf­fic ac­ci­dent are climb­ing, and it’s “a lot higher of a chance than win­ning the lot­tery,” said Shailen Bhatt, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

Among the most no­table in­creases was a nearly 11 per­cent rise in mo­tor­cy­cle fa­tal­i­ties — 104 deaths in 2015, com­pared with 94 in 2014.

Sam Cole, CDOT spokesman, said the agency doesn’t have an ex­pla­na­tion for the rise.

“We do know that mo­tor­cy­clists could be saved if they wore hel­mets, didn’t drive im­paired and if mo­torists watched out for them more care­fully,” he said.

Brian Root, man­ager of Coy­ote Mo­tor Sports, spec­u­lated that mo­tor­cy­clists some­times try to ride in weather con­di­tions they aren’t pre­pared for.

“Com­mon sense would know if it’s icy out, you shouldn’t be rid­ing,” Root said. “But I know peo­ple who do it. There’s a spe­cial breed who do it.”

Of­fi­cials search­ing for the ra­tio­nale be­hind the surge in fa­tal­i­ties cited the econ­omy as a big fac­tor. Lower fuel prices al­lowed more com­muters to gas up and go, Cole said, and job growth meant more peo­ple on the road for work.

An­other statis­tic that baf­fled trans­porta­tion of­fi­cials was that nearly half of all vic­tims in pas­sen­ger ve­hi­cle fa­tal­i­ties were not re­strained.

“The idea that there are still huge num­bers of peo­ple dy­ing that are not wear­ing seat belts is un­ac­cept­able,” Bhatt said.

So un­ac­cept­able, in fact, that ex­perts are con­sid­er­ing propos­ing leg­is­la­tion next year that would make not wear­ing a seat belt an of­fense war­rant­ing get­ting pulled over — a pri­mary seat belt law.

“If you look around the coun­try, the data is clear,” Bhatt said. “Where there is a pri­mary seat belt law in ef­fect, the fa­tal­i­ties go down. We know that this is ef­fec­tive. We also know it’s po­lit­i­cally un­pop­u­lar.”

In­stead of strong-arm­ing driv­ers to buckle up, Bhatt hopes in­tense education on the se­ri­ous­ness of seat belts makes peo­ple re­strain them­selves on their own.

Cur­rently, 15 per­cent of Coloradans ad­mit­ted to not wear­ing their seat belts, CDOT said.

Sixty peo­ple could have been saved if they all buck­led up, the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion said.

“We want to find out why peo­ple are re­sis­tant to this,” Bhatt said.

An ad­di­tional con­trib­u­tor to fa­tal crashes — driv­ing un­der the in­flu­ence — ac­counted for 32 per­cent of last year’s traf­fic fa­tal­i­ties.

In 2016, the State Pa­trols hopes to crack down on dis­tracted driv­ing, which is dif­fi­cult to gauge be­cause driv­ers tend not to be forth­com­ing as to whether they were tex­ting or tweet­ing be­fore a crash.

In the 2016 fis­cal year, CDOT awarded $3.5 mil­lion to non­prof­its, law en­force­ment and lo­cal govern­ment agen­cies to con­duct pro­grams de­signed to re­duce col­li­sions, in­clud­ing many ad­dress­ing al­co­hol-re­lated preven­tion pro­grams.

“Dis­tracted driv­ing is an epi­demic,” Bhatt said. “We know that we need to be do­ing a lot of education with folks around not us­ing their phones. Just like we needed time to de­velop al­co­hol strate­gies for education, there is some time that is needed to un­der­stand the role of tech­nol­ogy and dis­tracted driv­ing.”

This new data fol­lows a 2015 state pledge to achieve a year with zero traf­fic deaths — a feat that Cole said is still a re­al­is­tic goal.

“In the next few years, there is go­ing to be so much tech­nol­ogy to avoid col­li­sions,” he said. “That’s go­ing to be ex­tremely im­por­tant in bring­ing down fa­tal­ity rates.”

The 11.7 per­cent in­crease in fa­tal­i­ties over 2014 is the high­est year-over-year in­crease since 2002. That year, 743 peo­ple died in traf­fic ac­ci­dents. The low­est since then was 447 fa­tal­i­ties in 2011.

An­other record for the state was the 14 peo­ple killed on bi­cy­cles.

“What’s en­cour­ag­ing is over the last 15 years, we’ve been on a down­ward trend in fa­tal­i­ties,” Cole said. “Al­though this last year’s spike is a con­cern, per­haps it’s just a blip and the fa­tal­i­ties will con­tinue to come down. But we don’t want to wait and see.”

A fa­tal ac­ci­dent on south­bound I-225 just past the bridge over Sixth Av­enue on April 1.

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