“If there were 741 murders in Colorado, there’d be public outcry.”
Yet, says Colorado State Patrol Capt. Kris Meredith, the number of people killed in fatal motor-vehicle crashes doesn’t raise an eyebrow.
In 2001, 741 people statewide were killed in motor-vehicle crashes; 522 of them died in areas covered by the state patrol; the rest were killed in municipalities.
“Nobody really seems to think about that number,” Meredith said. “In calendar year 2001, it was just bad,” Meredith said.
The next year, the state patrol implemented “saturation patrols” — the reason drivers often see numerous state troopers along Colo. Highway 119 and Interstate 25.
“The CSP has adopted the strategy of placing our limited resources in areas that we have identified as ‘safety zones,’” Meredith said. “Started on July 1, 2002, the plan is to impact those areas by reducing fatal and injury crashes with enhanced visibility and strict enforcement.”
Last year, 405 people died in areas covered by the state patrol, while 636 died in the entire state, according to the agency’s annual report. Compared to 2003, the number fell by 13 for the state patrol, but increased by 24 in municipalities, the report said.
By comparison, 168 people were murdered in Colorado in 2003, the last year for which statistics are available from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
In each of the patrol’s six districts, the commander selected the two most dangerous stretches of state or federal highways, based on the history of fatal and serious crashes.
“What we’re doing is throwing a lot of our people in those areas,” Meredith said.
In Boulder County, Colo. 119 between Boulder and Longmont has been added to the patrol’s list of safety zones for 2005, according to the agency’s Web site. Other local safety zones include I-25 from just north of Colo. Highway 7 in Weld County to Colo. Highway 14 in Larimer County.
There is no magic number of troopers deployed to a safety zone at a particular time and place, Meredith said. However, commanders make the zones a priority in scheduling, and when two areas have connecting safety zones, such as I-25, they try to coordinate the timing of the saturation patrols, he said.
Just as with all police work, though, the plan does not always work out. Friday morning, extra troopers were scheduled to conduct saturation patrols on Interstate 70, but the weather interfered. Instead of monitoring driving behavior, the troopers ended up handling accidents, Meredith said.
“It sure looks like we’re making a big impact in those areas,” although statistically, it’s too soon to know for sure, Meredith said. “We know there’s always going to be some deaths.”
About 90 percent of Coloradans believe seeing troopers on the road causes drivers to be safer, according to the state patrol.
Not just speeding
While many people hit the brakes when they see a trooper, the officers are not looking just for speeders.
“It’s not just about speeding. It’s about the other types of bad driving behavior we see,” Meredith said.
And for those who do speed, using a radar detector to avoid a speeding ticket may not help.
“Most of the radar detectors don’t affect us that much,” Meredith said. Troopers use “instant on” radar when they see a suspected speeder, so drivers don’t have time to slow down before the radar catches their speed, Meredith said.
The top five causes of serious crashes, which included those with fatal and serious injuries, in Colorado during 2004 were inattentive driving, speeding, drunken driving, lane violation and following too closely, according to the state patrol.
Last year, the number of tickets issued for driving that could have cause an accident increased 17.5 percent, the annual report stated, while the number of drunken-driving arrests increased 10 percent.
The Boulder County Coroner’s Office said it handled 25 fatalities because of motor-vehicle crashes in 2004. Nine of those were alcohol-related.
More than 90 people were killed on Weld County roads in 2004. Alcohol was a factor in 28 percent of those deaths and was the leading cause of fatal crashes in Weld County, according to a January report from the Weld County Sheriff’s Office.
Combined, alcohol, speeding and inattentive driving caused 71 percent of the fatal crashes investigated by the sheriff’s office or the state patrol in Weld County, the sheriff’s office said.
To continue the saturation patrols, the state patrol will need more money to hire more troopers. In fiscal 2004, the CSP was allowed more than 900 full-time-equivalent positions, but the 2005 budget is still being finalized, Meredith said.
It can take up to 10 months to recruit and hire a new trooper, after which that trooper must undergo nearly eight months of training, Meredith said.
To conduct the saturation patrols without increasing manpower so far, the state patrol reduced the time it spends on motorist assists and conducting safety or education programs, according to the annual report.
Keeping troopers on the streets for the saturation patrols has allowed the patrol to reduce its response time for accidents, Meredith said. Residents want troopers to respond within 10 minutes, but it takes about 20 minutes, he said.
When troopers are in schools instead of on the road, that response time is even longer, he said.
Getting more people to wear their seatbelts also will reduce the seriousness of injuries sustained in crashes, Meredith said. Currently, about 80 percent of people wear seatbelts, he said.
Meredith noted people are more likely to wear their seatbelts when traveling on the highway than when driving around town.
The number of seatbelt violations last year increased about 24 percent from 2003, the annual report stated.
Meredith is pleased to see the graduated licensing laws that have been passed during the last few years. A disproportionate number of young people are killed while driving, he said.
The patrol implemented “Alive at 25” to help young drivers improve their skills.
“We are spending a lot of time with that program,” Meredith said.
New drivers wrongly think they can drive safely while talking to friends or using a cellular phone, Meredith noted.
“That vehicle is very heavy and can be a weapon,” Meredith said.
Victoria Camron can be reached at 303-684-5226, or by e-mail at email@example.com.