Transportation|January 14, 2010 3:18 PM

CDOT: Colorado Highway fatalities down 16 percent in 2009

Nearly 100 fewer people died in fatal crashes on Colorado roads in 2009 than in 2008, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation – marking an almost 16 percent decline.

Preliminary estimates show that 464 people died in 2009, down from 548 the year before.

That’s not a fluke, but the eighth year in a row that state highway deaths have declined.

That drop comes despite the fact that by all estimates, more miles were driven on Colorado roads than in the previous year, according to CDOT spokeswoman Stacey Stegman.

“From CDOT’s perspective, that drop mirrors the increased enforcement efforts, [including] DUI checkpoints,” Stegman says.

In exploring the reasons why fatal crashes are down in Colorado – and nationwide, according to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – several potential causes surface.

Colorado State Patrol officials cite increased enforcement of traffic laws, as well as educational programs to convince people to buckle their safety belts and avoid hazards like cell phone use while they’re driving.

CDOT officials note that Colorado highways are becoming safer with better engineering, increased use of “rumble strips” and even improved guard rails built with cables instead of unyielding steel.

A spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says the crippling recession has curtailed non-essential driving, which also contributes to the number of fatal crashes dropping dramatically.

Crash Fatalities

Crash Fatalities

According to NHTSA, the number of people killed on the nation’s highways declined each year by single-digit percentage points from 2005 to 2007. But from 2007 to 2008, the number of deaths dropped 10 percent nationwide: from 41,259 to 37,261. Figures for 2009 are not yet available.

The Institute also points to improvements in vehicle design.

Strategic enforcement

Sgt. John Hahn, patrol spokesman, says troopers’ use of highway “safety zones” in recent years has helped curb fatal crashes.

The patrol still holds on to its lofty goal of having zero fatal crashes in the state by 2025. That’s right, zero.

“With us, it was a matter of putting laser-sight focus on traffic safety and how we were going to impact that,” Hahn says. “We used data and statistics to tell us where crashes were happening most frequently, what the causal factors were, then employed high visibility and strict enforcement in those areas around the state.”

With limited resources, the strategy also helped focus their efforts to have the most impact on traffic safety.

“Look, most fatal crashes are preventable,” says Hahn. “Far more often than not, someone committed a violation.”

Hahn also pointed to educational efforts by troopers – like the department’s “Alive at 25” program for teen drivers and using traffic stops to educate drivers.

“People should take pride in themselves” that the number of fatal crashes has dropped, says Hahn. “People are much more aware of these safety issues. But there’s more work to be done.”

More education, safer highways

CDOT’s Stegman said the declining number of people killed in crashes in Colorado – a trend that started after a high of 743 deaths in 2002 – coincides with department’s educational efforts.

Before then, there were no federal funds available for paid advertisements, she says. But the NHTSA changed that and the impact has been “massive,” Stegman said.

CDOT has since rolled out an increasing number of public service announcements like “Click It or Ticket” safety belt awareness or the “Heat is On” for anti-drunken driving warnings.

“Those have really changed behavior,” Stegman said, noting recent department studies show about 81 percent of drivers now use a safety belt. State laws have also cracked down on teen driving, including banning texting while driving.

Stegman says safer highways have also contributed to the decline in deaths.

A big improvement has come from the large, electronic highway signs that can alert drivers to adverse conditions or crashes. Those signs also let drivers know when they’re entering one of the “highway safety zones.”

Engineers have also used more “rumble strips” in the middle of narrow, mountain roads – like those leading to the gambling towns of Central City and Cripple Creek – to prevent head-on collisions. The cable guard rails have also kept cars from going over the side, without the massive impact caused by the old, steel guard rails, Stegman says.

“We’ve done a whole host of things like that from a safety perspective,” she says. “We’ve also used the Federal Hazard Elimination Program to direct funds to high-accident locations. By doing a comparative analysis on the cost benefit, we get more bang for the buck that way.”

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“Vehicles are much more crash-worthy today than they were even 10 years ago,” says Russ Rader, Institute spokesman. 2009 Chevy Malibu vs 1959 Bel Air shows safety improvements over the years. (Source: IHS)

Improved car designs

The Insurance Institute’s Radar said the number one reason fewer people are being killed in car crashes is because of the advanced designs of cars themselves.

Next to air bags, one of the biggest improvements has come with electronic stability control.

“We have found that feature to reduce fatal, single-vehicle, crashes by as much as 50 percent,” Rader says.

The electronic stability control is quickly becoming standard on new cars.

A computer checks the direction a driver is steering against the actual direction the car is moving. So, for example, on a slick curve if the rear of the car slides out, the stability control can brake individual wheels to straighten the car out.

“It kicks in without the driver knowing something is wrong,” Rader says. “Auto makers have been rushing to put in ESC in vehicles since the Institute, and other safety organizations, found out how effective it is.”

Rader said the Institute has found a greater use of cameras to enforce speeding laws can cut the number of fatal crashes.

“Now just a couple of cities in Colorado use speed cameras,” he says. “That program should be expanded.”

The cameras provide enforcement 24 hours, seven days a week – which can also help budget-challenged police departments because it saves labor costs. Speed is a contributing factor in about a third of all fatal crashes, he says.

Whether a zero death rate on Colorado’s highways is even possible, it’s a goal the Colorado State Patrol believes is worth trying for.

Said Sgt. Hahn: “There truly aren’t any accidents.”

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