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Rise in Colorado Highway Fatalities Linked to Enforcement Drop

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Photo courtesy Colorado State Patrol

Photo courtesy Colorado State Patrol.

Highway deaths in Colorado rose from 2009 to 2011 by 29, which Colorado State Patrol (CSP) interim Chief Scott Hernandez calls “a lot,” as Rabah Kamal reports for Colorado Public News. Kamal points out that the CSP “dramatically” reduced highway safety enforcement in 2011 and 2012.

During 2011 and 2012, troopers issued fewer tickets, made fewer arrests, and stopped fewer drivers, as the patrol’s own data notes, Kamal writes. He goes on to say:

The rise in highway fatalities was striking because it reversed a dramatic 9-year decline in highway deaths, from 743 to 439. The death toll started rising again in the past two years, reaching 468 last year.

Kamal writes that the decline in enforcement and the related rise in deaths occurred under the watch of then-Patrol Chief James Wolfinbarger, who changed the Patrol’s strategy for reducing highway deaths. In 2011, Wolfinbarger abandoned the Patrol’s previous goals of cutting fatal and injury accidents on the state’s worst roads by 6% in 2009 (when it achieved a 14% cut). Instead, under Wolfinbarger, the Patrol has what Kamal calls a “vague” goal “to maximize intelligence-led strategies to protect life and property.”

The State of Colorado paid Wolfinbarger $90,000 in January to retire at age 42, and both sides agreed not to talk about the reasons for his “unexpected departure,” Kamal writes.

Data from the Patrol, as Kamal reports, shows that from 2009 to 2011:

— The number of impaired driving arrests dropped by 21 percent, from 8,035 to 6,381.

— The number of speeding tickets issued declined by 17 percent, from 88,911 to 73,765.

— The number of tickets issued for failure to wear seat belts dropped by 37 percent, from 41,100 to 26,011.

Chris Halsor, a traffic prosecutor with the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, told Kamal that some of the reasons for the state’s nine-year decline in highway deaths, which stopped declining in 2011 and 2012, are safer cars (equipped with airbags and many with crash warnings), safer highways (with cable dividers to prevent head-on collisions), and increased awareness of auto safety issues (with more people using seat belts). But enforcement is one of the best ways to reduce injuries and deaths on the highways, Halsor said.

Patrol data indicates that in 2011 and 2012, Colorado State Troopers “seriously” reduced their contacts with drivers. For example, when on special overtime patrols to find drunk drivers and enforce seat belt use, troopers cut their contacts with drivers by nearly two-thirds from 2011 to 2012, Kamal writes.

Hernandez told Kamal that he doesn’t exactly know why the troopers cut their contacts, but that the Patrol would be emphasizing impaired driving this year. Two-thirds of the people in vehicles killed on highways in Colorado in 2011 were not wearing seat belts; 41% of deaths involved speeding; and one-third involved a drunk driver, according to Colorado Department of Public Safety reports, Kamal writes.

The Colorado State Patrol’s website says:

Since 2001, the Colorado State Patrol has achieved remarkable success in reducing the fatal and injury crash rates through high visibility, strict enforcement and maximum deployment of available resources. The 2011-2015 traffic safety strategy is designed to allow business unit managers the flexibility to formulate tactics build upon the vision of the agency while improving public safety.

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