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Why Denver’s Streets Are Dangerous—And How To Make Them Safer

More than 600 people died on Colorado roadways in 2016, and in Denver, traffic fatalities have gone up every year since 2005. Why is this happening—and what can we do about it?

By , , |

The Problem

Work, school, grocery shopping, yoga, trivia night at the pub: You’ve got places to be. And if you live in the city, you have a variety of means to get where you’re going (car, bike, bus, light rail, your own two feet). Most of us travel around metro Denver so frequently that the act of transport can feel mundane—but it isn’t. It’s downright dangerous.

As a pedestrian, bicyclist, or driver in the United States, you are more likely to die in a traffic crash than you are from a lightning strike, drowning, fire, or skiing. More than 600 people died on Colorado roads in 2016, an increase of 10.6 percent from 2015, and in Denver, traffic fatalities have gone up every year since 2005. “The increase in serious bodily injury and fatalities is not unique to Denver,” says Crissy Fanganello, Denver Department of Public Works’ (DPW) transportation and mobility director. “It is happening across the country.”

This is perplexing because, in many ways, cars and roads are safer than ever, thanks to factors such as equipment improvements by automobile manufacturers, widespread seat belt use, and smarter street design. In the Mile High City, part of the problem is our rapidly growing population, which strains roadways with additional cars, bikes, buses, and people—often side by side. The result is an imperfect system of streets that is pretty good at shuffling cars but less effective at safely moving other things. Nearly a quarter of the city’s roads lack sidewalks; public transportation can take significantly longer than other modes (an inconvenience that can make people less likely to choose mass-transit options, which are less dangerous); and, as Jill Locantore, executive director of nonprofit advocacy group WalkDenver, says, “with the rate at which the city has been funding bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, it would take us [years] to build out networks.”

“There’s a lot of responsibility on a lot of different people in order to make sure our streets are safer. Certainly it’s the job of the people using the street. But it’s also the people who design the spaces.” James Waddell, executive director of nonprofit advocacy group BikeDenver

The good news is that people around the city and the state are working on wide-ranging fixes, from the controversial Broadway bike lane to free Breathalyzers to sidewalk upgrades (see “Big Ideas“). And this month, the DPW intends to solicit public comment on an action plan to support Denver’s 2016 commitment to the Vision Zero initiative (see “Zero Tolerance” on page 134), a global movement to eliminate traffic fatalities.

What everyone seems to agree on is that car crashes don’t just represent data points but also people who’ve died unexpectedly, leaving grieving families and a community searching for solutions to what seems like an avoidable loss of life. “It’s not acceptable to me that we’re likely going to have 700 deaths on our roadways this year,” says Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) executive director Shailen Bhatt. “We have a system that is killing hundreds of Coloradans. We should not accept one death.

How We Got Here

A Timeline of the Automobile

A brief history of automobiles, crashes, and safety in Colorado, the United States, and beyond.

1885–’86 Germany’s Karl Benz creates and patents the Motorwagen, which uses an engine powered by internal combustion.

1899 The Denver Republican newspaper declares that the horseless carriage is “even speedier than the bicycle and is not
so likely to get out of order.”

1902 In January, a Denver court issues what is supposedly the Mile High City’s first speeding ticket to a driver going 40 mph on
16th Street.

1908 The Ford Motor Co.’s affordable Model T rolls off the assembly line and makes car ownership a financially achievable part of the American dream.

1927 Denver tries to promote August as “courtesy month,” during which drivers should treat others as they’d want to be treated. Traffic crashes increase.

1930s and 1940s In response to a scourge of deaths known as Denver’s “bloody traffic era” (84 people were killed in traffic crashes in 1934), the city widens streets, adds more signal lights and one-ways, and starts a safety education program for drivers.

1952 Governor Daniel I.J. Thornton declares a state of emergency because of rising traffic fatalities.

1965 Ralph Nader publishes Unsafe at Any Speed, which influences major safety improvements—such as “Nader bolts” to keep hinged doors closed and mandatory seat belts—in vehicle manufacturing.

1987 Paradise Valley, Arizona, installs America’s first speed cameras, which can clock a car’s pace. Denver does the same in 1998.

1994 America’s first red-light cameras debut in New York City, decades after they were pioneered in the Netherlands. Denver introduces
the cameras in 2008.

2009 In December, Colorado’s first texting bill goes into effect and prohibits drivers from texting while their cars are in motion (barring an emergency).

2016 Denver becomes a Vision Zero city in an effort to decrease traffic fatalities and improve road safety.


The Evolution of the Road

The purpose of a road—and how it is designed—is in flux.

If you find yourself alone in one of Colorado’s wild forests, you almost certainly got there by a path. The act of creating a line between two points is something humans do naturally: Stone-paved streets date to 4000 B.C., and Rome’s Appian Way forever changed how rural and urban communities were connected. But the invention of the automobile in the late 1800s was even more catalytic.

The car’s popularity altered the way our roads were designed to make them safer and more efficient for motor vehicles. By 1935, the Federal Highway Administration published the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which dictated rules including the shape and color of a stop sign and how to mark passing zones with dashed yellow lines. In the 1950s, the United States embraced the highway, a German import, which spurred the construction of American autobahns across the country—not just to connect urban centers but also to cut through towns.

Today, many cities are working to retroactively improve—and sometimes undo—the car-centric infrastructure that ruled urban design in the 20th century. That’s because in many cases, what a road is now for encompasses mass transit, bike, and foot traffic—and, it seems, because people will continue to forge whatever paths they need to get to their destinations, whether road design has caught up with changes in popularity of modes of transportation or not. “We’re human beings,” DPW’s Crissy Fanganello says. “We’re looking for the shortest-distance route.” Her goal, she says, is helping you get there safely.


The Factors

Every crash is different, but experts say the following six issues are common contributors to fatal collisions.

Speed

If an object as heavy as a Subaru Outback (3,500-plus pounds) is moving at a high speed, it takes a whole lot of time and good brakes to slow it down. That basic rule of physics helps explain why more than half of Denver’s fatal crashes in 2015 involved a driver who was speeding: Most vehicular deaths are caused by blunt-force trauma, which occurs when a body makes abrupt contact with a flat area—the ground, a dashboard, the hood of a car. These injuries may not break the skin but can cause irreparable damage to internal organs. We asked Dr. Ernest Moore, an expert in trauma surgery and professor at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, to explain how.

A pedestrian is 79 percent more likely to sustain potentially lethal organ damage if a car is traveling at more than 40 mph.

Image via iStock

Not Wearing A Seat Belt

The Centennial State has a statute that requires drivers and front-seat passengers to buckle up, but we are also one of 16 states that don’t have primary seat belt laws. That means drivers can’t be pulled over just because they aren’t wearing a seat belt—but they can get a ticket for not buckling up if they were pulled over for, say, speeding. Opponents of primary seat belt laws cite concerns that range from maintaining personal choice to the potential for enabling racial profiling by police officers. Still, states that have gone from a secondary to a primary law have seen seat belt use jump by eight to 10 percent, and currently 16 percent of Colorado drivers don’t click it, even though seat belts can reduce fatalities from crashes by 45 percent.

Distracted Driving

In our constantly connected, multitasking society, most of us are guilty of doing a lot of things behind the wheel that aren’t driving. “We’ve made our cars into everything but a car today,” says Denver Police Department Lieutenant Robert Rock. “It’s like you get in and it’s an extension of your house. We feel comfortable, and we let our guard down. We forget we’re operating a dangerous machine.” And we’re getting more neglectful by the day: The United States saw 3,477 deaths from distracted-driving crashes—broadly defined as any activity that diverts attention from driving—in 2015, a 9.4 percent increase from 2014. Which means it’s time to take a hard look at your own driving habits, because if you’ve tried any of these less-than-safe activities while you were supposed to be focused on operating a motorized vehicle, you could be putting yourself and others at risk.


Never Have I Ever…

Which of these whilst driving no-no’s are you guilty of?


Driving Under The Influence

Yes, alcohol is still by far the biggest problem when it comes to driving while impaired—in fact, 22 percent of Denver’s 2015 traffic deaths resulted from crashes in which at least one driver had a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher. But Colorado’s great experiment in legalizing marijuana has introduced another statistic that’s difficult to ignore: Traffic fatalities that were pot-related—meaning at least one person involved in the accident tested positive for THC—increased by more than 150 percent from 2006 to 2014 in the Centennial State. However, more than 60 percent of drivers who were issued a DUI for marijuana in 2015 also had alcohol or another drug in their systems, so it’s unclear how much each substance contributed to the wrecks. Currently, law enforcement uses a blood test to check for THC levels (a level of five nanograms can be prosecuted as a DUI), but there are concerns about what, exactly, that measures, since a user’s high doesn’t correlate with THC levels. Officers also rely on observed impairment to make DUI arrests. The upshot: Plan for the munchies and drive through Taco Bell before you get baked.

Three five percent ABV beers over one hour is enough for a 160-pound male to reach Colorado’s legal BAC of 0.05 percent for driving.

Motorcycles

Riding a Harley or sport bike down Colorado’s scenic, winding roads provides a thrill that driving an air-conditioned Prius can’t match. Yet that adrenaline-inducing proximity to the open road is also a strong contributor to motorcyclists’ high representation in fatal crashes—19.4 percent of the state’s traffic deaths in 2015 were motorcyclists or moped drivers. (Nationally, these riders account for less than one percent of total vehicle miles traveled.) Those stats scare even the most fervent motorcycle fans: Some DPD officers have sold their personal bikes after serving in the Traffic Investigations unit. And although minors in Colorado must wear helmets when riding motorcycles, it is legal for everyone else not to, even though protecting your noggin gives you a 44 percent better chance of surviving a motorcycle crash.

63 = Percentage of the motorcyclists who died in crashes in Colorado in 2015 who weren’t wearing protective headgear

Disregarding Safety Laws

In crashes that involve a car and a pedestrian or cyclist, the car usually runs into the walker or rider. But that doesn’t mean nondrivers are above reproach. Pedestrians who are hit by cars are sometimes intoxicated, impatient, or jaywalking. A 2015 study also found that pedestrians who were texting as they walked were nearly four times as likely to cross a street in a dangerous fashion than pedestrians who weren’t distracted. Plus, in a study of bicycle crashes in Denver from 2008 to 2012, the most common contributing factors among the cyclists involved were failure to yield right of way and ignoring traffic signals or stop signs. No matter how you’re getting to your destination, it can be difficult to distinguish the line between being a jerk and breaking the law. Here, our (unofficial) sliding scale of bad walking, biking, and driving behavior.

Just Annoying

Pedestrian: The four dudes who insist on walking shoulder to shoulder, blocking the entire sidewalk, on their way to Elway’s for lunch.
Cyclist: The cyclist who wears earbuds.
Drivers: The driver who doesn’t give a thank-you wave when you let her in on Speer Boulevard.

Reckless and Rude

Pedestrian: The pedestrian who stops mid-intersection to take a photo of the Union Station sign.
Cyclist: The bike rider on 17th Avenue who could easily ride on a parallel street, like 16th Avenue, that has less traffic and a bike lane.
Drivers: The person who puts on makeup at a red light…while texting.

Definitely Illegal

Pedestrian: The woman who dodges cars to cross Colfax Avenue even though there’s a protected crosswalk in sight.
Cyclist: The commuter who rides her B-cycle on a sidewalk that isn’t designated as a bicycle lane.
Drivers: The driver who just rolls past a stop sign—right in front of your kid’s school.

Downright Deadly

Pedestrian: The runner who decides to practice sprints downtown, during rush hour, without heeding traffic lights.
Cyclist: The cyclist who blows through a stop sign without yielding (and isn’t wearing a helmet).
Drivers: The person who pulls out of a parallel parking spot and crosses multiple lanes without looking.


Time Flies

You might be surprised at how much can happen while you read what seems like a quick text at 55 mph.

Incoming text: I’m on my way home too. Traffic is ba…

Time to read: ~4.6 seconds

Distance covered: A football field

What you could miss: The car swerving into your lane to avoid hitting the shredded tire flying off the truck three cars ahead


Thanks, Colorado

A sampling of (sometimes beautiful) hazards that are fairly unique to motoring around in the Centennial State.

Vivid, driver-distracting sunsets over the Rockies just begging to be Instagrammed ♦ Roads that were clear in the morning (when you chose to take your non-four-wheel-drive car to the office) and are, by 5 p.m., covered with slippery slush and snow ♦ Bluebird morning skies that cause brutal sun glare ♦ Elk, deer, or bighorn sheep on the road


The Solutions

South Broadway inforgraphic
Source: Denver Moves. Infographic by Sean Parsons

The Grand Experiment on Broadway

It’s praised. It’s loathed. It’s misunderstood. It’s one of Denver Public Works’ most talked-about projects. Meet the South Broadway bike lane.

When the city began implementing its first two-way, parking-protected bike lane on South Broadway, near Alameda Avenue in August 2016, it did so cautiously. The roadway is one of the city’s busiest arterial streets (it carries up to 32,000 cars per day) and a fast lane (well, five lanes) out of downtown that crosses Colfax Avenue and connects to I-25. The 10-foot-wide bike lane, which took out one lane of automobile traffic, was first tested by BikeDenver with a weekend pop-up experiment in September 2015. After almost a year of public comment, fleshing out a design, and implementing the necessary facilities—such as bike-specific traffic signals, permanent markings on the asphalt, and flex posts (white plastic four-foot-tall bollards)—the new bike lane was ready. All five blocks of it.

So if you want to ride the 1,000 feet from, say, the Bardo Coffee House to Thai Monkey Club, then it’s great. But if you need to get to Civic Center Park? Not so much. And complaints about the new setup range from confusion over the multitude of signals (in addition to existing stoplights, there are cyclist signals to watch for) to the nonintuitive nature of a two-way bike lane on a one-way street. The current iteration of the South Broadway bike lane is part of a long-term effort to make Broadway and Lincoln Street more bike- and pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares. Funding for the whole project—which could top $12 million—is TBD (see Zero Tolerance), but it is garnering fans. “[Broadway] is a one-way street that works as a conduit to get people out of the city in a car,” City Councilman Jolon Clark says. “Now, we’re thinking of it as a two-way superhighway for bikes.”

Safe distance
Infographic by Sean Parsons

Five Bright Ideas

Improving traffic safety isn’t about a one-size-fits-all solution. Here, five ways Denver and Colorado are finding ways to incrementally upgrade.

Rapid Response Team

Since February, after every fatal crash in Denver involving a pedestrian, bicyclist, or motorcyclist, a team of police officers, public works employees, and community members visits the location to see what could be done to make the area safer. Solutions might include adding a stop sign, building a protective curb extension for pedestrians, installing additional streetlights, or adjusting the speed limit.

Sidewalks on Every Street

More than 20 percent of Denver’s streets are missing sidewalks, and 40 percent of the pedestrian paths that do exist are “substandard,” meaning they present a tripping hazard or aren’t wide enough, says WalkDenver’s Jill Locantore. Sidewalk upkeep is the responsibility of homeowners, but if voters approve a funding proposal set to be on the ballot in November, the city intends to pony up tens of millions of dollars to improve worn walkways.

Bike Lanes Protected by Parking Lanes

Nestling bikeways between sidewalks and parallel parking lanes creates an additional buffer between cyclists and traffic while minimizing reductions in parking spaces (often metered) in the city’s densest areas. The idea is being tested throughout Denver, including a section of South Broadway, and is permanent on 14th, Lawrence, and Stout streets in and around the downtown area.

BACtrack
Photograph courtesy of BACtrack

CDOT’s Breathalyzer Program

Last summer, CDOT handed out free Breathalyzers to 225 randomly selected people in the Denver metro area. The participants then downloaded an app called BACtrack that synced with their Breathalyzers. After 84 percent said the experience helped prevent them from driving after drinking, CDOT decided to bring the concept back this summer with a focused study of men and women in their 20s and 30s (at-risk populations for drunk driving in Colorado).

Free (or Discounted) Rides

As part of its Drive High, Get a DUI campaign, CDOT partnered with Lyft to give out 3,000 discounted or free rides in March and April in an effort to convince 4/20 fans not to get behind the wheel post-consumption. CDOT plans to offer similar discounts again later this year.

Hickenlooper
Governor John Hickenlooper signs the statewide Medina Alert into law in March 2014. Photograph by Andy Cross courtesy of Getty Images

Long Gone

The number of hit-and-run crashes is increasing, but the DPD is hoping to change that by enlisting everyday citizens in the search for fleeing drivers.

On a typical eight-hour shift, the Denver Police Department has two to five detectives and three sergeants working crash scenes across the city. These officers investigate accidents, creating forensic maps of what happened using laser-measuring devices and interviews. But hit-and-runs—Denver saw an average of 567 of these crashes per month last year (up from 2015’s average of 521 a month)—present a unique challenge. There are usually few or no witnesses; details about speed, timing, and intent are difficult to pinpoint; and although traffic and security cameras help, city streets are not under constant surveillance. Thus, DPD detectives work hit-and-runs as they would stranger-on-stranger homicides, gathering clues to build timelines and identify suspects.

That’s why, in part, the DPD is using technology to increase the number of eyes it has looking for fleeing drivers. The Medina Alert, a system developed by a former DPD officer to notify people in the local area of hit-and-run details—such as the make and model of a car on the lam—launched in February 2012. By disseminating this information via highway signs, social media and email alerts, and TV and radio mentions, the two-year trial in Denver saw 13 solves in 17 uses of the alert. That success led the program to expand to the rest of Colorado in 2014.

The department also set up an initiative in 2014 with local auto-body shops that asks them to share details about suspicious vehicles and damage that someone might attempt to get fixed. It’s all part of an effort to not only solve more hit-and-runs but also deter people from leaving the scene (a felony if it’s a fatal crash or one that causes serious bodily injury) in the first place. Says DPD’s Robert Rock: “The message is that we’re going to have hundreds of thousands of people looking for you.”

10 = Statute of limitations, in years, on filing charges in fatal hit-and-run cases in Colorado (upped from five years by legislators in 2014)

What’s Next?

Vision Zero
In February 2016, advocates showed their support for Vision Zero in front of City Hall. Photograph by David Sachs

Zero Tolerance

The Mile High City’s plan to eliminate traffic deaths will be released to the public this month—but it will be up to voters to fund it.

In 1997, Sweden launched Vision Zero, an ambitious blueprint to reduce the country’s traffic fatalities to zero by focusing on design (e.g., well-marked crosswalks and speed bumps or roundabouts). Two decades later, the country hasn’t met its goal: 263 people died in road accidents there last year. But that’s more than a 50 percent decrease since Vision Zero’s inception, and the initiative’s success has enticed dozens of cities around the world—including Denver—to adopt similar frameworks. The city joined Vision Zero in 2016, and the Department of Public Works is currently drafting an action strategy that’s “specific and unique to Denver,” says DPW’s Crissy Fanganello. “We’re learning from the cities that have gone before about what works and doesn’t work.” The number one lesson has been that deaths are preventable, even if crashes aren’t. “What makes Vision Zero different from other traffic approaches is that it starts with the assumption humans are fallible,” says WalkDenver’s Jill Locantore, “but also that we can design a transportation system that ensures those mistakes don’t result in fatalities.”

Long-term Vision Zero goals will include identifying the city’s deadliest streets and investing in major infrastructure improvements to reduce the fatalities at those locations. The first draft of the plan is scheduled to be released for comment this month, and DPW hopes to have a final version before the end of the year. But before the city can follow through on its ideas, it will need the dollars to implement them. A general obligation (or GO) bond, which could provide up to $500 million for transportation initiatives, is the most likely funding source. The City Council will likely set the 2017 allocation amount this month, and Denver voters will decide whether to support the bond on the November ballot. Rapid-transit lanes for buses on East Colfax Avenue, citywide sidewalk improvements, protected bike lanes, and updated crosswalks on Broadway, Speer Boulevard, and Colfax Avenue are on the short list for funding. “Mobility is our number one issue,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock says. “We’re growing at such an amazing clip. Our street system is not going to change significantly, so we have to think about how we use our streets.” Hancock has also suggested using part of the city’s 2018 budget for investments in transportation and mobility, including Vision Zero–specific projects, some of which may be announced at his State of the City address this month.

“Other than big projects, the intersections I have been successful at changing are ones where citizens reached out and talked to me.” Jolon Clark, City Council member

Although most people acknowledge that funding Vision Zero won’t be enough to eliminate all traffic fatalities, stakeholders like the City Council’s Jolon Clark say zero deaths is a necessary benchmark. “That pushes us hard,” he says. “You have to take a step back and say, ‘These are not numbers on paper—these are people.’ ”

Robocops
Robocops have started patrolling some streets in The Democratic Republic of Congo. Photograph by Brian Sokol

Creative Solutions

New traffic safety methods from around the world that just might be crazy enough to work in Denver.

Origin: France
The Problem: Pedestrians who don’t obey traffic signals
The Solution: Awareness
How It Works: The French road safety authority installed motion detectors, cameras, and speakers at main intersections throughout Paris in March. When peds cross without a green light, the sound of braking tires is played and the offenders’ petrified reactions are captured in photos—which are displayed on digital screens at the scene and used in safety ad campaigns.

Origin: The Democratic Republic of Congo
The Problem: Overextended or corrupt police forces
The Solution: Robocops
How It Works: A group of female engineers came up with the idea for unbribable, eight-foot-tall aluminum robots, which have been serving as solar-powered traffic lights while using cameras to capture speeding and red-light violations since 2013.

Origin: The United States
The Problem: The additional injuries that cyclists or pedestrians hit by cars sustain when they’re tossed onto the asphalt or into another object
The Solution: Human flypaper
How It Works: In 2016, California-based Google patented an adhesive on the front of its self-driving cars that would cause a person to stick to any vehicle that hits him.

Origin: The Netherlands
The Problem: Drivers’ and cyclists’ difficulty seeing pedestrians at night
The Solution: Light-up crosswalks
How It Works: Glowing light boxes have replaced light-reflecting paint at some heavily used crossings, making walkers easier to spot. The city of Bodegraven-Reeuwijk has also embedded LED strips into the edges of crosswalks; they change color with the traffic signals and are more easily seen by pedestrians with their heads buried in their smartphones.

Self-driving car
Photograph by Noah Berger courtesy of Getty Images

The Driverless Car

Self-driving cars may (someday) increase our safety on the road.

Three Things You Can Do (Now) to Help

Three easy things you can do to make our roads safer—today. These actions could reduce serious and fatal pedestrian traffic crashes by more than 60 percent, according to the DPD.

  1. Move Your Head
    When turning, if a driver tilts his head to see around the “A pillar” (the large beam between your windshield and side doors), it can help eliminate up to 18 percent of pedestrian-car crashes.
  2. Use the Crosswalk
    Thirty-two percent of Denver’s pedestrian accidents happen between intersections. If you’re walking, log some extra steps on your fitness tracker by heading to the nearest crosswalk.
  3. Follow the Signs
    People who fail to abide by pedestrian signals account for 11 percent of pedestrian crashes. This includes pedestrians who break the rules by walking when (or where) they shouldn’t.

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