Pedestrian, cyclist deaths raise concerns about safety of Colorado Springs roads

Published: Jan. 28, 2018 at 1:57 PM MST
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More than a quarter of the record number of people killed on Colorado Springs' roads last year were cyclists or pedestrians, raising concerns about the safety of those who walk or bike on city streets.

The year's 39 traffic fatalities broke the previous record of 35, set in 2013. Of the people who died, 20 were in cars, six were riding motorcycles, three were cyclists and 10 were pedestrians.

"Even if they have the right of way, if they're hit by a car, they're going to lose," said police Sgt. Jim Stinson.

While the pedestrian deaths aren't a record, it is concerning, said Stinson, who oversees the Police Department's Major Accident and Registered Sex Offender units. Thirteen pedestrians were killed in 2012, three in 2013, two in 2014, eight in 2015 and seven in 2016, he said.

"Politeness and consideration seem to be a thing of the past," Stinson said recently while reflecting on the state of driving in Colorado Springs. "You don't see as often people allowing other people to merge, and when that does happen, you don't see somebody waving, 'Thanks,'"

The record number of traffic fatalities can be attributed in part to distracted driving and impairment, said Lt. Howard Black, Police Department spokesman. Sixteen of last year's crashes involved drugs or alcohol - or both - police data show.

'Bad driving habits'

Stinson said new cars are safer than ever before, but they're also built to go faster. And too often people don't wear set belts.

Of the 20 people who died while in a vehicle, 13 weren't wearing a seat belt, police data show.

"All too often people are driving at video games speeds, along with a video game mentality, but are suffering real life (and long lasting) consequences," Stinson wrote in an email to The Gazette. "Unfortunately, there are no reset buttons in life."

In summary, he said, it's time for drivers to take responsibility for their "bad driving habits."

Statewide, the death toll was 630 last year, the highest it's been since 2004, Colorado Department of Transportation data show. And with 76 deaths, El Paso County was the worst of the state's 64 counties.

"You can blame it on not wearing seat belts, you can blame it on speed, you can blame it on everything else, but it's us who make the choices not to wear our seat belts, it's us who make the choices to drive fast," Stinson said. "It's our decisions. It's not the car's decisions. Like I said earlier, the cars being manufactured are safer than they've ever been, yet we're killing more people."

State death totals didn't break 500 for six straight years, from 2009 to 2014. But after that yearslong dip, the number of fatal crashes in Colorado is again steadily increasing, data show.

In late December, officials attributed the surge to impaired or distracted drivers and people not wearing seat belts.

"It is my hope that people will be more aware of their surroundings, their own driving capabilities, and their vehicle limitations; and drive with more consideration of others on the road," Stinson wrote in the email. "After all, dying in a crash is just as tragic as being murdered."

Local enforcement

While Colorado Springs police officers are working to drive the numbers down, too many residents see traffic enforcement as an inconvenience, Stinson said.

"You drive down the street, and if you have cops running radar, what does the car coming over the hill do for you as you're about to crest the hill and you hit the radar trap? They start flashing their lights, right?" he said. "So you slow down, you go past it, then you speed back up."

The number of crash victims often is equal to or greater than the city's number of homicide victims, he said. Last year, police investigated 32 homicides.

"We have cops out here getting paid, trying to affect that, but people get mad at them for doing their job," Stinson said. "After all, it's just a traffic accident until it effects you or someone you love."

The three-detective Major Accident Unit was called out to 90 crashes last year, Stinson said. The lead detective on a fatal crash will dedicate "easily 40" hours to investigating it, he added.

MAU detectives investigate fatal crashes, as well as serious-injury crashes that involve a hit-and-run driver, reckless driving, drugs or alcohol. They also investigate crashes with "the potential for high liability for the city," such as serious officer-involved crashes, he said.

"I always tell people, and this might be hyperbole, but I think my guys can do any kind of detective work in this department - but not any kind of detective can do my guys' work," Stinson said.

Although local traffic fatalities have surged in recent years, the total could be far higher, Stinson said.

"That's the thing about this with these wrecks - you know, we went out 90 times last year - any of them could have been a fatality," he said. "There are some that you just shake your head and say, 'How did this person live?' It could be way higher than what it is."