Recent fatal crashes raise safety concerns
SUMMIT COUNTY – The bad news is sport-utility vehicle (SUV) rollover accidents are killing more people, according to a new study. The worse news is that SUVs aren’t getting any less prone to rolling over.
And in Summit County, especially in areas such as the stretch of Interstate 70 known as Officer’s Gulch, where SUVs – and plenty of other vehicles – have a bad habit of ending up on their roofs, that means emergency responders can expect to see little change in their workload.
Accidents in the past week – including two on Highway 9 north of Silverthorne that claimed four lives within 24 hours – serve to emphasize the danger inherent in navigating mountain roads.
But as statistics show, it’s not so much the road’s design or condition or the vehicle that matters most in determining the cause of an accident. It’s the driver’s behavior.
Total highway deaths are on the rise. A report issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) July 17 said that highway deaths in the United States hit a 12-year high of 43,000 in 2002.
The report also revealed that SUV rollover fatalities jumped more than 14 percent. Rollovers accounted for 61 percent of fatalities in SUVs, compared to 22 percent of deaths in cars.
NHTSA investigators are pushing efforts to increase SUV safety, but recent tests show there is great room for improvement. Earlier this year, the NHTSA conducted safety tests gauging the propensity of various 2003 model cars to roll in crashes. The news was not good – especially in Summit County, where odds are, if you don’t drive a Subaru, you drive an SUV or a pickup truck.
In fact, not a single SUV earned the federal agency’s highest safety rating. Crash investigators tested 14 different SUVs, ranking their safety using a system of one star (the worst) to five stars (the best). A two-star rating, for example, indicates the vehicle is likely to roll in 30 to 40 percent of crashes. The 2003 Toyota Tacoma truck earned a two-star rating, as did the Cadillac Escalade ET, the Chevy Avalanche and the Mitsubishi Montero Sport.
Automakers have criticized the tests, though, because the NHTSA uses a mathematical formula that factors in variables such as the vehicle’s height and weight to calculate the likelihood of a rollover and does not use actual crash tests.
Upon cursory appraisal, it seems simple enough to say that Swan Mountain Road, for example, with its changes in elevation and sharp, blind turns, is more dangerous than the relatively flat stretch of interstate between Frisco and Copper Mountain, despite the highway’s higher speed limit.
It’s not that simple of an analysis, though, says Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) spokeswoman Stacey Stegman.
When CDOT engineers examine highway design, they look at trends, Stegman said. A rash of summer crashes that result in fatalities might be an aberration in years of safe travel.
“And as far as trends go,” Stegman said, “it’s not uncommon to see more fatalities, as there are more cars on the road. It’s statistical in some ways.”
To scientifically evaluate the dangers roads pose and whether or not a design change is warranted, engineers compare one stretch of pavement with a similar one – roads with comparable traffic volumes, characteristics and conditions.
In recent years, CDOT has added signs to area roads, from variable message signs on I-70 to “icy road” signs on state highways.
Stegman said the agency is applying for more federal money for safety improvements. Highway reconstruction – by far the largest, most expensive route to making safe highways – is one option under the current corridor-wide study of I-70.
Stegman said road safety analyses are usually conducted when engineers notice a trend.
“But to be honest, when you look at it, between 70 and 75 percent of the accidents can be attributed to driver error,” Stegman said.
Other times, though, analyses and change are spurred by requests from local governments – or a single citizen who doesn’t give up.
In 1999, a Heeney resident led a charge to reduce the speed limit on Highway 9 north of Silverthorne. Lorraine Caposole, who not only commutes along the highway, but also is on the county’s Emergency Medical Services Area Trauma Advisory Council, took her concerns to county commissioners, CDOT and eventually to Gov. Bill Owens.
CDOT raised the speed limit from 55 mph to 65 mph after a traffic study showed the latter limit was closer to actual speeds. The complaints Caposole and others aired convinced CDOT to take another look, and the agency lowered the speed limit back to 55 mph between Heeney and Silverthorne.
Dangerous roads and vehicles aside, it is the drivers and passengers in vehicles who can make the most difference, transportation officials say. It should be noted that the three women killed in last week’s Highway 9 accident were not wearing seat belts, while the survivors of the wreck were.
The rising traffic deaths have prompted nationwide campaigns this year, which Colorado drivers might have noticed.
Summit County law enforcement agencies have participated in stepped-up drunken driving enforcement, as well as programs aimed at seat-belt use.
But there’s only so much education and outreach can do, Stegman said. That’s why CDOT is pushing the Legislature to lower the legal blood-alcohol limit for drivers and make seat-belt use a primary offense (meaning officers could stop drivers who don’t wear one).
“Those are factors that would increase safety,” Stegman said. “But until the law changes, there’s not much else we can do besides the education campaigns.”
Some organizations, however, such as restaurant associations, doubt how much lowering the blood-alcohol limit for a DUI charge from .10 to .08 will do. The local and state restaurant associations have opposed such a change and often point out that a DWAI charge in Colorado currently carries a limit of .05.
In the 1990s, people were dying on the stretch of Highway 9 between Frisco and Breckenridge near Tiger Road. Public meetings were held.
In the end, CDOT added a stoplight at Tiger Road, signs along Highway 9 and adjusted lane mergers.
“In that situation, there were some things that could be done,” said County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom.
Lindstrom said there are three ways to address traffic accidents – engineering, enforcement and education.
He said most agencies don’t have the resources to patrol enough, however.
“The true education piece from all of this is, you must – not should – you must wear your seat belt,” Lindstrom said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re just going down the road, or if you won’t be on any high-speed roads. Is there something that could have been done to convince these people that died? I don’t know. But the lesson is there.”
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