Colorado Springs is still one of the deadliest cities in the state for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians, despite a slight decrease in the number of traffic-related deaths last year.
The city had 41 traffic deaths in 2019 — seven less than the record 48 the year before — the second highest among Colorado cities for traffic fatalities. Among those deaths were nine pedestrians, 11 motorcyclists, three bicyclists and three caused by or involving drunken drivers.
Denver ranked highest in the state with at least 59 traffic deaths last year, data from the Colorado Department of Transportation shows.
El Paso County had the highest number of traffic deaths in the state with at least 66 fatalities, according to CDOT's data.
The decrease in deaths in Colorado Springs is belied by an increase in violent crashes that caused serious injuries, calling into question just how much traffic enforcement can do to tame dangerous driving and flouting of laws.
“In 2018, we had 108 call-outs for our unit,” said Sgt. Jim Stinson, who heads the Police Department's Major Crash Team. “Last year we had 121. It’s still a problem … it’s not a police problem, not a government problem, it’s a community problem.”
Stinson said his job can be summarized as picking up the “carnage” left behind by bad driver behavior.
“I think part of the issue, too, is that people think it’s just an accident, that nobody tried to kill them, but it affects people,” he said. “These are tragedies. In 2018, 48 people started the new year, but they didn’t end the year.”
After the record deaths in 2018, the Police Department was on a mission to reduce traffic fatalities. Chief Vince Niski, who was promoted last February, said traffic safety was the department's top priority.
“Seeing a decrease in the number of traffic fatalities in Colorado Springs in 2019 is a positive for our entire community,” Niski said. “It means our enforcement efforts are working and citizens are being more responsible out on our roads. However, we believe the numbers are still too high.”
The department participated in every Colorado Department of Transportation enforcement period, in addition to 14 High Visibility Enforcement efforts including New Year’s Eve, Memorial Day, Super Bowl Sunday, Independence Day and Thanksgiving.
From Jan. 1, 2019, to Nov. 30, 2019, officers made 1,692 DUI arrests, a city statement said.
As part of the CDOT-funded Slow Down Colorado Springs campaign, officers issued 2,399 additional citations covering 2,758 traffic violations, police said.
Red-light cameras were installed at some of the city's busiest and most crash-prone intersections. From May to November, the cameras caught more than 7,170 potential red light violations at three Colorado Springs intersections: Platte and Chelton avenues, Briargate Parkway and Lexington Road, and Academy Boulevard and North Carefree.
At those three intersections, a total of 5,134 citations were issued from May to November. More than 4,200 of those were at Platte and Chelton avenues, police said.
The intersections chosen for red-light cameras are selected on a “combination of factors,” including the number of crashes and severity of crashes, the city’s website says.
Some residents, though, remain skeptical about the cameras. In 2017, when city leaders finalized plans for the cameras, many people reminded police that the cameras have been tried in the past and discontinued as ineffective.
It’s too soon to tell if they’ve made an impact in Colorado Springs, said police spokeswoman Natashia Kerr, but the city has plans to install 10 more red-light cameras, she said.
“We’ve heard from many community members that this is a revenue generator,” Kerr wrote in an email. “That is absolutely not the case. None of the revenue comes directly back to the CSPD.”
Revenue from the cameras goes into paying for their installation and maintenance, the city’s website says, with additional income being funneled into the city’s general fund.
All of it adds up to one goal: changing driver behavior.
“You’re responsible for what you can manage,” Sokolik said. “You can manage your driving behavior, you can manage where your car is on the road. … That’s why we talk about driving defensively so you’re paying attention to what other drivers are doing and you’re changing your driving behavior accordingly.”
Areas that had the highest number of injury traffic crashes were: Garden of the Gods Road and North Chestnut Street, North Academy Boulevard and Maizeland Road, Lake Avenue and South Gate Road, and Academy Boulevard and Pikes Peak Avenue.
As part of our commitment to decrease injury traffic crashes, this week our officers will begin the 2nd Quarter of our partnership with @ColoradoDOT by conducting speed enforcement in the following areas. Slow Down Colorado Springs. @CSPDPIO pic.twitter.com/UGqBpiIDLh— CSPD Duty Lieutenant (@CSPDDutyLt) January 6, 2020
The layout of Academy Boulevard — residential streets combined with commercial and several other major roads intersecting — provided an especially dangerous landscape in 2019, Stinson said.
Despite that, bad driving is the No. 1 cause of crashes.
“We need to look at ourselves in the mirror and say ‘Where’s the problem?'” Stinson said. “There’s the problem, looking right back at me … we should exercise more grace, more patience and less arrogance. Despite the efforts of our Police Department, if we’re going to change this, the community has to get involved.”
Nine of the people killed in traffic-related incidents last year were not wearing seat belts, Stinson said. Of the 11 motorcycle fatalities, five weren't wearing helmets. Excessive speed remained the main killer, he said.
Has the extra enforcement and education efforts changed the way Colorado Springs’ motorists drive? The answer isn’t in simply looking at how many people are killed, Sokolik said.
“What you’re really trying to measure is the unknown,” he said. “We don’t know how many accidents we prevent through our actions. Are our efforts successful? We certainly hope so.”
After red-light cameras were discontinued in 19 cities nationwide recently, there was a 30% increase in those cities’ fatal crash rate, said Skyler McKinley, a spokesman for AAA Colorado.
In Colorado, the number of fatalities resulting from crashes has increased, McKinley said, which is “surprising.”
“Historically, you normally see the crash rate go down consistently,” he said. “The reason for that is people become more accustomed to the laws, they become less likely to drive drunk as a result … car technology is getting better. But in the past several years, we've seen an increase. … It's really concerning, especially when you look at who's most likely to die in crashes.”
There’s been a 30% to 40% increase in the pedestrian and bicyclist fatality rate in Colorado over the past decade, McKinley said.
That’s been the case in many cities across the country. More pedestrians were killed in 2019 than any other year since 1990, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Pedestrian deaths nationally are up 42% and bicyclists up 20% from 2008 to 2018, McKinley said.
Last year, there were 114 pedestrians killed in New York City. The number of cyclist deaths more than doubled. The city began an initiative to provide safety upgrades, including giving pedestrians a head start at crosswalks.
Colorado has the fastest growing rates in the country for car insurance, McKinley said, largely due to more expensive cars to repair, but also because crashes cause high payouts.
“We know that 96% of all crashes are caused by bad human behavior,” he said. “So 96% of crashes are completely preventable.”
Speeding has become an epidemic in Colorado Springs, McKinley and Stinson agree.
The average risk of severe injury for pedestrians and cyclists struck by a vehicle is 25% at only 23 mph, McKinley said. That risk doubles to 50% if a vehicle is going 31 mph. There’s a 75% risk at 45 mph, he said.
“I think drivers who are angry about traffic are misplacing their anger,” McKinley said. “They should not be angry at traffic because they are the traffic. They should be angry that people aren’t driving and meeting their responsibilities as well as they should.”