Crashes on Interstate 25 from Monument to Castle Rock are up more than 50 percent since construction began to widen the stretch, known as the “Gap,” last fall.
From Sept. 1 through May 31, there were 790 crashes on the roughly 18-mile segment, compared with 514 crashes during that same nine-month period from 2017-18, according to data from Colorado State Patrol.
Crashes where property was damaged, but no one was hurt or killed, have accounted for most of the increase, records show.
“People aren’t paying attention,” State Patrol Chief Matthew Packard said in a meeting last week with The Gazette’s Editorial Board, where a news reporter was also present. “They’re not giving enough room to the other car with the following distance, or they’re not being cognizant of what might be next to them, or they’re going too fast.”
Crews broke ground after Labor Day on the $350 million project, which will add a pair of toll lanes to the highway, widening the Gap from two to three lanes in each direction.
The Colorado Department of Transportation has assured that two lanes will remain open in each direction of the highway during the daytime, barring emergencies.
But even during peak travel hours, shoulders along many parts of the Gap are smaller than they were before the project started and bordered by traffic barriers to allow room for construction crews. As a result, drivers have “less room for error,” Packard said.
In the nine months after the groundbreaking, State Patrol recorded 728 crashes that only caused property damage, 59 crashes that caused injuries and 3 fatal wrecks.
From September 1, 2017, through the end of May 2018, there were 458 crashes that only caused property damage, 54 crashes that caused injuries, and 2 fatal wrecks, the agency reports.
The three fatal crashes from September 1, 2018, to May 31 were not near project work zones, said Transportation spokeswoman Tamara Rollison.
In December, a 19-year-old Aurora man died after he was struck by a semi near Larkspur, where construction had not yet begun.
Other crashes included in State Patrol’s count might have occurred in parts of the Gap where crews weren’t working at the time, Rollison said.
The agency’s statisticians and traffic analysts haven’t verified the data or examined the circumstances of the crashes to determine what’s caused the apparent increase, she said.
“When you’re reducing the width in which cars can drive, it’s not unusual for the crash rate to go up,” she said. “It’s so important that people drive carefully through the work zone, because the No. 1 cause of crashes before we started construction and during construction are people following too closely.”
Wrecks along the Gap were on the rise in the five years leading up to the project groundbreaking, according to State Patrol data.
Crashes that just caused property damage have steadily risen in the September — May time frame, from 289 in 2013-14 to 511 in 2016-17. Injury crashes, too, had roughly doubled, from 25 in 2013-14 to 45 in 2016-17.
The number of fatal crashes during the those 9-month periods has varied, from zero to four, since September 2013, the data show.
The I-25 widening, slated for completion in 2022, is financed with state and local taxpayer dollars and a $65 million federal grant.
Tight shoulder space has made it more difficult for State Patrol to respond to accidents, Packard said.
State law requires that drivers move their vehicles out of the road if a crash occurs and no one is hurt or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, Packard said.
“If you can get to the next exit, the exit is exponentially better than the shoulder, which is exponentially better than staying in the lane,” he said.
Now that construction is in full swing, state troopers are patrolling the Gap, and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office has also stepped up enforcement on frontage roads along I-25 near Larkspur and Castle Rock, according to the Transportation Department.
State transportation officials also meet regularly with local law enforcement agencies and other first-responders to discuss the project and coordinate efforts to help drivers stay safe, Rollison said.
“We want everyone to get home safely,” she said. “We’ve gone over and beyond to make that work zone as safe as possible, constantly working with our partners, with CSP and other emergency response teams.”
Speed limits have been reduced along The Gap, and electronic signs warn of congestion and construction activity, such as trucks entering and exiting work zones.
Officials advise drivers heed warning and speed limit signs, allow plenty of room between their vehicles and the cars in front of them, and use emergency pull-offs to stop instead of idling on the interstate.