Colorado sees increase in fatal accidents in 2020 despite fewer cars on the road

Summit County saw an 83% decrease in fatalities

A Colorado State Patrol vehicle with flashing lights is pictured Jan. 4, 2020, in Frisco. While Summit County saw only one fatal crash in 2020, the state as a whole saw an increase, despite lower traffic volumes.
Photo by Liz Copan / Summit Daily archives

Traffic fatalities were down in Summit County last year, but a reduction in cars on the road during the pandemic might actually have increased dangerous driving behavior among some.

Last year, the number of traffic fatalities dropped considerably in Colorado State Patrol’s District 4, which encompasses Summit, Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Jackson, Lake, Mesa, Moffat, Pitkin, Rio Blanco and Routt counties. From 2019-20, the area saw a drop from 56 traffic fatalities to 41, a more than 26% decrease. Similarly, the area saw a 26% decrease in fatalities related to impaired driving incidents, from 23 to 17.

In Summit County alone, the number of fatalities dropped from six to one, and the number of fatalities involving impaired drivers dropped from two to zero. Capt. Jared Rapp, commander of the Colorado State Patrol’s Troop 4C based in Frisco — which includes Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield and Lake counties — said his troop dealt with 14 fatalities last year in the five-county region compared with 16 in 2019.

But the declining numbers appear to be regional. For example, other tourism communities like Eagle (10 fatalities in 2019 compared with two in 2020) and Grand counties (10 compared with one) also saw significant declines.

The numbers look worse as the scope broadens. The Colorado State Patrol and the Colorado Department of Transportation aren’t consistent in how they break the state into regions, but if you add in the additional counties that make up CDOT’s Region 3 — which includes all of State Patrol’s District 4 in addition to Delta, Gunnison, Hinsdale and Montrose counties — the number of traffic fatalities drops from 70 in 2019 to 68 in 2020, a less than 3% decrease.

“Summit County sees a lot more tourist traffic than Delta or Gunnison do,” said Sam Cole, CDOT’s traffic safety communications manager. “(The types of fatalities) that went up were motorcycles from 10 to 14, pedestrians went from two to four, young drivers went from one to three. Those are small numbers because it basically stayed the same … even though it should have fallen a lot more given less traffic on the roads.”

Cole said the state saw traffic volumes decrease by about 11% last year and that traffic decreased more than 50% in certain areas at the height of pandemic restrictions. Despite a notable decrease in drivers on the road, there was more than a 2% increase in fatalities statewide, from 597 in 2019 to 611 in 2020.

The pandemic might have played an active role in the numbers, both in driver behaviors and which drivers were choosing to head out onto the roads.

“We were really surprised that traffic fatalities didn’t come down,” Cole said. “When we thought more about it, it’s most likely because less traffic means more open roads, which is an invitation to speeding and other unsafe driving behaviors.

“When you look at the statewide numbers, older driver deaths decreased. They’re off the road. They’re at home. They’re doing like they should. Young driver deaths increased, which kind of fits the story we’ve heard about COVID that young teenagers aren’t as concerned about COVID because they’re not as vulnerable, and that tells the same story with the traffic fatality data.”

Rapp said speeding drivers were a problem during March and April last year but that traffic patterns since have normalized.

“At the start of 2020, when everybody was on stay-at-home orders, we did have increased speeds when we had more vacant roads,” Rapp said. “With the amount of traffic back on the roadways, you’re not getting the exact same numbers of those speeds you had before.”

Perhaps most troubling is the number of deaths involving an impaired driver. The number of drunken or high drivers on the road last year was down overall, but the number of impaired driving fatalities increased.

According to data collected from CDOT’s The Heat is On campaign, there were 6,181 impaired drivers arrested during special DUI enforcement campaigns in 2020, down from 9,199 in 2019. (These numbers exclude the Presidents Day weekend enforcement period in 2020, which wasn’t held in 2019.) But impaired driving fatalities increased from 2019 to 2020 in CDOT’s Region 3 (from 26 to 27) and across the state (from 176 to 208).

“We did see an increase statewide in the number of impaired driving fatalities, which is really surprising as bars and restaurants have been more or less closed,” Cole said. “That may be because some of the risk takers are people who drink and drive. Those are the ones who aren’t going to let COVID get in the way of drinking and driving.”

Rapp said his troopers have put a special emphasis on trying to prevent impaired driving deaths this year.

“The No. 1 reason we had fatal crashes last year was DUI and DUID, which accounted for six of the 14 fatal crashes we had,” Rapp said. “There will be an emphasis on removing those two causal factors, and that’s what we’re going to focus on to bring us from 14 to 13 and ultimately to zero.”

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