Southbound traffic on Interstate 25 in Denver is seen on Oct. 5, 2020. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
At least 745 people died in traffic accidents on Colorado roads in 2022, the highest figure in more than 40 years, as a decade-long trend of rising roadway fatalities shows no signs of slowing down.
Last year’s death toll represents a 66% increase since 2011, when statewide traffic deaths reached a modern-day low of 447, according to data from the Colorado Department of Transportation. The rate of traffic fatalities has risen steadily since then, and spiked even higher in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, part of what experts have identified as a nationwide trend towards more dangerous driving.
“We are seeing more aggressive driving. We’re seeing folks taking more chances, driving at higher speeds, driving more recklessly,” Col. Matthew Packard of the Colorado State Patrol said in a press conference Monday. “I’m certainly not a sociologist, but I think we see this type of behavior becoming increasingly pervasive around our society, and our roadways are far from immune from that.”
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Colorado recorded its highest-ever traffic fatality count in 1981, when 756 people died on its roads. Since then, the state has exceeded 700 traffic deaths in only three calendar years: 2001, 2002 and 2022.
When accounting for growth in population and vehicle miles traveled, the rate of fatal accidents on Colorado roads is significantly lower now than at its peak in the 1980s — an estimated 1.37 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, compared to over three in 1981, according to CDOT data.
Still, that fatality rate has increased by more than 40% from its 2011 low, a trend that state officials on Monday attributed to a range of factors, including a rise in impaired driving — frequently, Packard said, due to alcohol, cannabis or a combination of the two. Distracted driving caused by the rise of smartphones and vehicle touchscreen systems was also cited as a factor.
San Lee, a CDOT traffic engineer, said that the agency has convened a task force on speed limit adjustments and is awaiting updated federal guidance on traffic control methods to be released this spring. Many of the agency’s road improvement projects around the state, he said, include features designed to account for the growing popularity of larger, heavier SUVs.
“Vehicles are getting heavier, they are definitely getting taller, so when you see those construction projects out there, a lot of those are actually improving the height of the guardrails and putting in more robust crash safety systems,” Lee said.
Pedestrians and people on bicycles and motorcycles make up a rising share of the fatalities on Colorado roads, the CDOT data shows. Just under 26% of traffic deaths recorded from 2002 to 2011 were pedestrians, cyclists or motorcycle riders; over the last decade, that figure was 35%.
Packard said that the Colorado Department of Public Safety, which oversees the state patrol, will continue to work with state lawmakers on safety improvements. But he argued that “policy-driven solutions” could matter less than individual shifts in driver behavior.
“I certainly think there’s work that can be done. But honestly, at the end of the day, the key to saving lives on our roads is a strong dose of common sense,” Packard said. “For people to just do things like put on a seatbelt and look through the windshield rather than down at a device — those are the keys, I think.”
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