Colorado Traffic Deaths Rise Again, and Again Colorado DOT Tries to Deflect Blame

CDOT boss Michael Lewis said traffic deaths are mostly a matter of individual responsibility and "education," not the design of transportation systems, but that runs counter to everything we know about places with safe streets.

Image: CDOT
Image: CDOT

It’s an annual tradition: The Colorado Department of Transportation holds a press conference on the insane loss of life on the state’s public streets, stressing the importance of seat belts and the choice to drive sober. TV anchors and newspaper reporters dutifully relay the agency’s talking points. The exercise will be repeated next year.

CDOT Director Michael Lewis.
CDOT Director Michael Lewis.

On Wednesday, CDOT Executive Director Michael Lewis informed the media that 635 people were killed on Colorado roads last year. That’s 30 more people than 2016 and nearly 200 more than 2014. Pedestrian fatalities rose, while bicyclist deaths held steady. Denver PD records show 51 people killed in the city — 30 of them on streets and freeways under CDOT’s control.

But Lewis doesn’t want you to blame CDOT.

“The number one party that is responsible for reducing these numbers of fatalities and serious injuries is us as individuals,” Lewis said. “We are the ones that can make this difference if we watch our speed. If we never get in a vehicle when we’re impaired. If we don’t get in a vehicle if we are tired. If we commit to putting down our cell phones.”

Pedestrian deaths are on the rise. Image: CDOT
Pedestrian deaths are on the rise. Image: CDOT

Lewis and Colorado State Patrol Chief Matthew Packard said the best solution to prevent traffic deaths is “education” (that was also last year’s solution). In other words, handing balloons to pedestrians crossing the street and billboards reminding people that seat belts are good.

Streetsblog asked whether there’s any evidence that these campaigns work, seeing as how traffic deaths continue to rise despite them.

Image: CDOT
Image: CDOT

“That’s one of those things that I don’t know how you measure its usefulness, but I would much rather educate than cite,” Packard said.

In other words, no, there is no evidence.

There is plenty of evidence that redesigning streets saves lives by reducing the incidence of lethal driving speeds and adding more protection for pedestrians and cyclists. But “there isn’t enough money,” Lewis said, to prevent hundreds of premature deaths across state each year with engineering fixes.

“I would say you can make virtually anything safe with all the resources in the world, but that’s just impractical,” Lewis said. So widening I-70 for $2.2 billion and I-25 for $350 million to push more cars through the state is practical, but safety is not?

Lewis sounded more receptive to redesigning dangerous streets when asked whether CDOT’s inexpensive and rapid fix to a dangerous Colfax Avenue intersection would be replicated on other high-speed urban streets that double as CDOT highways.

“I think that there are safety permits that can be made for traffic calming and a lot of that is driven by local interests… so we are open to that,” Lewis said. “It will change how people move around and a lot of people that are used to getting from point A to point B on the Colorado Boulevards or the Wadsworths or the Federals. Should those roadways be lower speeds? Should there be traffic calming designs put in place? I would say yes, there are opportunities.”

Lewis should know that multiple city plans, including the Vision Zero Action Plan, already call for these types of changes. It’s time for his agency to implement them.

  • Roads_Wide_Open

    1) excessive speeding for street design/weather conditions.
    2) lack of lawful punishment for restraint and resistance to do so regardless of law.
    3) distracted driving (phones, sleep, etc).

    Solve these issues and crashes, therefore deaths, go way down.

    You missed the point though…it’s not just a factor of speed, it’s speeding in excess of the roadway conditions/roadway design. The answer will never be to design every street down to a max of 25 or 45 mph. I’ll say it again…you can’t fix stupid.

    • MT

      You can prevent a lot of crashes and reduce the severity of the ones that do happen through street design.

      Lacking some serious amount of enforcement, street design is what tells people how fast to drive. When that speed doesn’t match up with the context of the street, you get a lot of people driving at a speed that’s going to cause problems.

      Even the stupid ones will not be driving as fast on a narrow, two lane street as they will on a wide 6 lane.

    • neroden

      It’s all roadway design. People tend to drive to the speed which the road “looks” safe for. Make it a chicane, almost everyone slows down.

      It’s a psychological thing. Flat, straight, and wide == speeding.

      • TakeFive

        I get the theory but color me more than a bit skeptical. For one thing turning a major arterial into a sleepy side street may be unrealistic. And when I look at the Top Ten reasons for crashes (that I listed above) I’m not sure whether a serpentine design doesn’t make things actually worse. Then add in more road rage. Plus such a conversion would be yugely expensive. Who’s writing that check?

        I much, much prefer my own fix. Add dedicated centerine BRT lanes with green streets improvement. It offers a way to move more people through the corridor as well as being safer. Not an inexpensive undertaking either though.

        • Ben Schumacher

          You don’t have to turn a major arterial into a sleepy side street. It’s mostly the wide part that encourages faster driving. Studies have shown that 10-foot lanes reduce speeds and increase safety without needing to change speed limits. If people feel safe driving a speed, they will drive that speed (unfortunately). If they don’t expect something to be in front of them, because there’s a ton of room between them and the sides of their lane, they don’t see a problem looking at their for for “just a second.”

          https://www.citylab.com/solutions/2015/07/10-foot-traffic-lanes-are-saferand-still-move-plenty-of-cars/399761/

        • Ben Schumacher

          Also, changing lane width doesn’t have to cost a lot.

        • David Sachs
          • TakeFive

            Hah, I can assure you I’ve read that. It’s always nice that we can agree on some things. 🙂

        • MT

          I think your fix fits into that theory pretty well.
          Instead of a wide road looking like a drag strip, the BRT divides it up into narrower parts. Things like trees lining it have also been shown to make people drive slower, it feels narrower even with no change to the street.

          It’s a great plan.

    • ZeroVisionPhila

      Lack of Pedestrian reasonability is responsible. I have lots of videos of why pedestrians are KILLED! Its called the Suicide Run! We cannot cross a street property!

    • ZeroVisionPhila

      Not how they taught you to cross a street in school. Lack of Pedestrian Responsibility that kills! https://twitter.com/twitter/statuses/959849336208351232

  • red123

    You act like the increase from the past 3 years is on CDOT? The roads haven’t changed much since 2014 so it’s hard to understand how the increase could be on them?

  • TakeFive

    The top 10 causes of crashes are: 1) distracted driving 2) Drunk driving 3) Speeding 4) Reckless driving 5) rain – or Denver’s case snow 6) Red light running 7) Night driving 8) design and other road defects 9) tailgating 10) (tie) Wrong way/improper turns and 10) teenage drivers. CDOT would only have any influence over #8 ofc.

    With respect to your favorite road widening projects, CDOT is not an autonomous agency. They are subject to the dictates and wishes of the Colorado legislature and by extension the voters. Much has been codified while other priorities are determined over time by the legislature.

    Mitigating specific hazardous areas I would assume CDOT would be willing to cooperate in conjunction with help from the municipality involved. One thing I noticed with Westward’s report is that upscale suburban areas seem to have much less of a problem.

    • Greg

      1) tricky, but as a dept of TRANSPORTATION how about more and better transit / bike / ped. 2) see 1. 3) you CAN design out the ability to travel at high speed 4) see 3. 5) ? maybe 3 snow events so far this winter in town… 6) ROUNDABOUTS 7) street lighting, better striping reflectivity, transit 9) ? 10) there’s tech and design that can help here, also see 6.

      Although it may not seem like it, CDOT is and rightly should be responsible for a lot more than just pavement and traffic signals.

      • TakeFive

        You wouldn’t be the first or only person to misunderstand CDOT’s mission. As I pointed out CDOT is not an autonomous agency; it is subject to the dictates of the STATE legislature. The State ie the legislature decided decades ago they didn’t want to be in the local transit/mobility business other than for a 10% allocation which was codified. You would be impressed by what they’ve accomplished with that 10% but you’d have to be familiar with Colorado outside of Denver. Within the Metro area CDOT has recently added many miles of quality bike trails along U.S. 36 and rebuilt much of the bike trail along C-470.

        Traditionally CDOT has been responsible for state highways, many which go through the urban area but the purpose was to move a lot of cars. Attitudes are changing and that’s fine but the financial obligation for adding bells and whistles wanted by Denver is likely or largely the responsibility of Denver. Btw, CDOT has started utilizing roundabouts but only in appropriate places. Not an engineer so I couldn’t give you the criteria. CDOT is somewhat of a leader in wanting to incorporate better tech. One issue is that CDOT is poorly funded in contrast to many other state’s DOT. Arizona is one very good example; they have the funding to do a high quality job on projects.

        • Greg

          As someone who works with CDOT on occasion I am well aware of their mission and funding, and maybe a suggestion of transit is misplaced for CDOT specifically. I am simply pointing out there are opportunities that exist (even for CDOT) to go some way to addressing your list. The context of the area, street or road is important so they are only going to apply accordingly

          I use the 36 bikeway which is great, I also use the un-BRT on 36/25 where a huge opportunity was missed in design and service efficiency (I know, only partly CDOT). Not used Bustang etc yet.

          I spent my first 30 years of life in the UK so I’m well aware of the opportunity and limitations of roundabouts, and there’s a ways to go for all the agencies here.

          • TakeFive

            I clearly misjudged your experience/background; apologies for that. The FF is not perfect but within a budget I think RTD did a nice job and it’s been highly successful so far.

          • Greg

            I hate to knock RTD as I love transit and they have made so much progress, but the success of the FF is due more to its existence than its dubious quality. I can’t speak to their budgeting but there are many issues with the FF infrastructure – and this seems to be an ongoing problem for RTD. Why bother spending money on shelters that provide zero shelter in any weather condition, or install information boards that are too small and as far as possible from where passengers would actually stand? These things are fundamental.

            The success of the FF is an interesting thing though – consider that most highway projects are planned to still operate OK 20 years into the future. The FF is a couple years in and already over capacity at peak time as well as reliability often impacted by traffic due to the lack of dedicated facilities both directions. Since I think we both know the B line will never make it to Boulder, I wish this had been planned so much better. A missed opportunity.

        • David Sachs

          CDOT is part of the governor’s cabinet in the executive branch and is not controlled by the legislature. Also you should point people to this supposed codification (law?) to which you’re referring.

          • red123

            One handcuff is the division of authority over streets CRS 43-2-135. Essentially saying that anything beyond the traveled way is the responsibility of the local city or county. Technically, per this law CDOT shouldn’t be responsible for sidewalks, protected bike lanes, or multi-use paths if they are beyond the traveled way.

          • TakeFive

            Excellent; nice work.

          • David Sachs

            This would put bus lanes, protected bike lanes (which are on the street) and pedestrian refuges under CDOT control.

          • TakeFive

            The legislature intentionally enabled areas to form taxable districts for the purposes of transit/mobility (another provision I didn’t bookmark) and RTD was born. Doesn’t mean CDOT can’t participate in roadway improvements relative to such but it is not their primary mission. You’re good at getting into gray areas and it’s fair to say I’m not the resident expert.

          • David Sachs

            CDOT’s official mission is “To provide the best multi-modal transportation system for Colorado that
            most effectively and safely moves people, goods, and information.” Doesn’t seem gray to me.

          • TakeFive

            Bleh: mission statements. Doesn’t negate legislative bills that have been passed. Mission statements are vague by intent. Tell me you don’t know this?

          • red123

            Agree with most of that. If the protected bike lanes are behind curb and gutter then local agency – per the law. Not saying the law shouldn’t change.

          • TakeFive

            “under CDOT control”? Not really. My reading of CRS 43-2-135 is that it doesn’t speak to any of that. I’ll assume that CDOT would have to sign off on such but can’t be required to be responsible for such improvements. I’ll assume this is either covered by existing intergovernmental agreements or is left to be negotiated.

          • TakeFive

            Very fair to point out that CDOT is a part of the Executive branch and not the legislative branch. Just the same, like our sitting narcissistic goofball Pres they can’t ignore either the (state) constitution or the laws passed by the legislature although our Pres sure likes to try to, no?

            I researched the 10% provision which was tucked into one of those more comprehensive bills once but didn’t bookmark it… /sigh. I’m sure if I wasn’t washing clothes and other things I could do it again.

          • David Sachs

            It doesn’t exist. You’re probably thinking about FASTER. There is no law on the books that limits CDOT to spending 10 percent of its budget on transit.

          • TakeFive

            I have been wrong before… IIRC they were ‘required’ to spend 10% on transit and mobility. Was that a hard percentage? Hmm, you’ve got me curious now. I’ll look for it when I have time but no I wasn’t thinking about FASTER; this was well before that.

          • David Sachs

            Maybe 10 percent is a minimum. It is certainly not a maximum.

          • TakeFive

            lol, I’ll research it; if I happen to be wrong I’ll happily admit so. I may be able to ask my CDOT blog buddy if he’s available to expedite my search.

  • TakeFive

    The humble beginning: section 18 of article X of the state constitution.

    On and after July 1, 1935, the proceeds from the imposition of any license, registration fee, or other charge with respect to the operation of any motor vehicle upon any public highway in this state and the proceeds from the imposition of any excise tax on gasoline or other liquid motor fuel except aviation fuel used for aviation purposes shall, except costs of administration, be used exclusively for the construction, maintenance, and supervision of the public highways of this state. Any taxes imposed upon aviation fuel shall be used exclusively for aviation purposes.

    • TakeFive

      Colorado Revised Statutes 2016
      TITLE 43
      TRANSPORTATION
      GENERAL AND ADMINISTRATIVE
      ARTICLE 1
      General and Administrative
      PART 1
      DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION

      This appears to restate and presumably update all that came before… I’m looking.

      • TakeFive

        Getting closer:

        43-1-113.5. Creation and administration of transportation infrastructure revolving fund.
        (2) The revolving fund shall include a highway account, a transit account, an aviation
        account, and a rail account. The general assembly shall, by appropriation, determine how state general fund moneys in the revolving fund shall be allocated to the highway account.

        43-1-117.5. Transit and rail division – created – powers and duties.

        • TakeFive

          Closer yet:

          PART 10
          ADMINISTRATION OF FUNDS UNDER THE “FEDERAL TRANSIT ACT”
          43-1-1001. Urban mass transportation grants. (1) The department of transportation and the executive director thereof are hereby designated and authorized to take all steps and adopt all procedures necessary to make and enter into such contracts or agreements as are necessary for the
          state application and administration of any funds made available under the “Federal Transit Act”, codified at 49 U.S.C. sec. 5301 et seq.
          (2) The authority contained in subsection (1) of this section shall not apply to federal grant funds where there exists a designated recipient for such funds, and funds made available under the “Federal Transit Act”, 49 U.S.C. sec. 5309, within the Denver regional transportation district, and funds for other projects in urbanized areas with populations in excess of two hundred thousand
          persons, except as provided in sections 43-1-601 and 43-1-901.

  • TakeFive

    OK Sachs; it appears you raised a valid question:

    43-4-101 to 43-4-113. (Repealed)
    PART 2, HIGHWAY USERS TAX FUND, Colorado Revised Statutes 2016
    transferred to the highway users tax fund pursuant to section 39-26-123 (4) (a) or 24-75-219,
    C.R.S., or appropriated to the highway users tax fund pursuant to House Bill 02-1389, enacted at the second regular session of the sixty-third general assembly, and credited to the state highway fund pursuant to section 43-4-205 (6.5) shall be expended by the department of transportation for the implementation of the strategic transportation project investment program in the following manner:
    (I) No more than ninety percent of such revenues shall be expended for highway purposes
    or highway-related capital improvements, including, but not limited to, high occupancy vehicle
    lanes, park-and-ride facilities, and transportation management systems, and at least ten percent of such revenues shall be expended for transit purposes or for transit-related capital improvements.

    So far has Colorado Revised Statues, it appears this provision was written in 2001

    I STAND CORRECTED – I’m glad you pressed me on this as I knew a provision had been added that required spending money on transit/mobility (apparently in 2001) and I knew they customarily spent 10% and by golly assumed that was a specific allocation… but I never thought about whether it was a minimum or a set figure. Thanks for setting the record straight; I much prefer to be accurate. 🙂

  • Rambo

    Lack of Pedestrian reasonability is responsible for over 95% of Pedestrian deaths. Because we cannot cross at the corner or a green light.

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