Denver Public Works Now Convenes “Rapid Response Teams” After Fatal Crashes

The intersection where a driver killed Michael Hoglund is also home to an RTD light rail and bus station. Image: Google Maps
The intersection where a driver killed Michael Hoglund is also home to an RTD light rail and bus station. Image: Google Maps

Michael Hoglund, 28, lost his life to a careless driver at the intersection of Federal Boulevard and Howard Place in the twilight hours of January 26. He was crossing the street when a motorist hit and killed him.

Though a bustling RTD light rail and bus station sits at the crossroads, the streets aren’t designed for walking. Quite the opposite, actually. Federal is eight lanes wide at this location, and Howard is six. The street design encourages deadly vehicle speeds and forces people to hurry across a sea of asphalt to catch the bus or train.

This is the type of dangerous intersection design that has to change if Denver is going to reduce the city’s traffic death toll.

As of December, the city is taking a more systematic approach to addressing the problem. Denver Public Works now convenes “rapid response teams” after every fatal crash involving a pedestrian, bicyclist, or motorcyclist.

Engineers from DPW, traffic investigators from Denver PD, street safety advocates from the Vision Zero Coalition, and reps from the Department of Environmental Health meet at the site within five days of the crash. They identify what went wrong and what might prevent it from happening again. When a crash involves transit or a state highway, Colorado DOT and RTD participate as well.

Broadly speaking, we already know how to retrofit streets to reduce dangerous speeding and prioritize people walking and biking. What the rapid response team does is document the details of each case, says Rachael Bronson, a transportation planner with DPW. It also formalizes a process where government agencies and advocates can share information and learn from each other.

“It raises a tremendous amount of awareness among all of us,” says Bronson. “Not only what each of us does, but what goes into an investigation of a crash. It’s very eye opening.” The rapid response teams are compiling data that will inform Hancock’s Vision Zero action plan, due out this summer.

Each site visit results in formal documentation of potential safety measures. An investigation into another deadly intersection, 13th and Broadway, resulted in a new traffic signal that forbids drivers from turning left without a green arrow.

After the crash that took Hoglund’s life, the team suggested a longer pedestrian crossing phase at the intersection, so people have plenty of time to cross the street without getting stranded in a rush of speeding cars. DPW and CDOT have not changed the signals yet, however.

One simple fix has been completed: A nearby property owner trimmed tree branches that were obscuring drivers’ view of pedestrians. The rapid response team also got a dead streetlight bulb replaced, says WalkDenver Associate Director Jill Locantore, who was on the rapid response team for Hoglund’s case. The burned-out bulb led to the realization that the intersection’s streetlights should come on earlier, Locantore said, to illuminate the area well before the sun completely sets. It’s a simple, quick safety measure that might have gone unnoticed without the rapid response team.

Paying attention to these details is helpful, but it still doesn’t address the systemically dangerous street designs that require more robust measures, like narrower roadways and shorter crossing distance for pedestrians.

“It becomes clear that even if [the intersection] is adhering to whatever the current standards are, the standards are inadequate, because these people aren’t doing anything wrong,” says Locantore. “They’re just trying to get from one side of the street to the other, where their bus is, and the system is failing them by not giving them adequate time and or infrastructure to do that in a timely manner.”

Locantore says it’s been helpful to work closely with the police officers who respond to traffic crashes day in and day out. They understand enforcement, but they’re not trained as engineers or city planners, which is where DPW and advocates come in.

“That’s not a fun part of their job, and they want us to collectively as a city to do whatever we can to address traffic fatalities,” Locantore says. “But because they don’t understand street design, they often have a little bit of a fatalistic attitude, that there’s only so much we can do.

“To me, the value is relationship building. To know each other as human beings is incredibly important to be able to work together on these issues going forward.”

Know a dangerous intersection that needs fixing? A street that needs a sidewalk or a protected bike lane? Drop a pin on this map and let DPW know.