By Allen Cowgill
Denver just ended another record year for traffic crashes.
As of Dec. 31, Denver recorded 422 serious bodily injury crashes in 2023. That’s more than any year since 2013, when the city’s Vision Zero data begins.
Alongside serious injury crashes, the city reported 83 fatal crashes, which could surpass the 2021 record of 84 once year-end data is updated.
By comparison, there were 292 serious injury crashes and 47 fatal crashes in 2013. While Denver’s 20% population growth since that time might be one factor behind the increase, it doesn’t explain it all. Serious injury crashes have increased nearly 45% over the same period.
Pedestrians made up a disproportionate share of those fatally killed by drivers in 2023. Recent surveys estimate about 5% of Denverites are walking commuters, yet pedestrians made up nearly one-third of all people killed in crashes last year.
Another factor might be the decrease of Denver Police traffic enforcement. Between 2018 and 2022, there has been a significant decline in the number of speeding tickets given out. In 2018 there were 44,905 speeding tickets issued, according to Denver County Court. In 2022, that number dropped to 15,268 speeding citations. As of mid-December, the 2023 numbers were similar at 15,661 speeding tickets.
Jill Locantore, executive director of the Denver Streets Partnership, a nonprofit coalition advocating for people-friendly streets, asserted that this is a predictable outcome from public policy over the last few decades, and that everything from vehicle design to the way streets are made has contributed to a rise in injury crashes.
Locantore also noted that in the last few years there has been a big change in travel patterns due to more flexible work models like remote and hybrid jobs.
“Traffic is distributed more evenly throughout the day,” Locantore said, “and our street system was designed to accommodate rush-hour traffic. And so a lot of our arterial streets are way overbuilt for other times of the day. And now that traffic is more evenly distributed throughout the day, and not so much congested in those rush-hour times, it just makes it that much easier for people to speed and drive recklessly when they have these huge streets that are overbuilt for the volume of traffic.”
Locantore added that new-vehicle design is another contributor to crash severity. Many new vehicles, including some EVs, are larger and heavier than their older counterparts and have tremendous acceleration.
“It’s just not surprising at all that people are driving faster and faster and are less attentive to the safety of people outside of their vehicles,” she said. “We are all feeling that and experiencing that on our streets.”
Locantore didn’t feel there is good evidence that police officer-initiated traffic enforcement impacts safety. She noted that the sporadic nature of enforcement and lack of consistency means that driver behavior doesn’t change on the aggregate. She called increasing officer-initiated enforcement a “knee-jerk reaction” given the design of our streets invites drivers to speed.
“We know [increasing officer-initiated enforcement] is going to have the biggest impact on people of color and low-income communities, and exacerbate injustices there,” she said.
She said there is good evidence for more automated enforcement, or the use of speed and red-light cameras, to improve driver behavior and long-term impacts on safety, since these are in use at all hours of the day every day of the year.
“There is no reason that in the next year the city couldn’t stand up an automated speed-enforcement program focused on the high-injury network, again with equity in mind,” said Locantore. “So there is lots of communication and advanced warning, and they start by just issuing warning tickets before they start issuing real tickets that charge money.”
In 2014, New York City launched a speed camera program around schools during weekdays from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. to increase safety. In 2022, the city expanded that program as it found that speeding happens the most on nights and weekends. The expanded hours of the speed cameras resulted in a 30% decrease in speeding and a 25% decrease in traffic fatalities along the corridors where cameras were installed. New York City also saw a 20% decline in pedestrian deaths citywide in the first seven months of 2023.
Locantore said that Denver can focus on changing the design of streets in the longer term to prevent speeding. She said she was very pleased that CDOT is adding bus rapid transit to streets like East Colfax Avenue, Federal Boulevard and Colorado Boulevard as that will help change the design of those streets for the safer. In addition, she mentioned that Denver can do a much better job of adding speed tables, or speed bumps, and diverters to residential streets to increase safety in neighborhoods.
“If they can start putting them more consistently throughout neighborhoods, that’s how you start getting the behavior change … and that makes it impossible to go 50 mph down these streets,” said Locantore.
Locantore said that DOTI could be more efficient at building out traffic-calming measures if it had an internal team dedicated to neighborhood traffic calming, instead of relying on external contractors. Similar to how Denver has a dedicated city team that fills potholes.
“The city does a great job of planning and design work,” she said, “but actually building stuff, that is where the bottlenecks often happen.”
Allen Cowgill is the City Council District 1 appointee to the DOTI Advisory Board, where he serves as the board secretary.