Denver, CO

CDOT: Impaired drivers push traffic fatalities to 20-year high

Heather Willard

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A highway near Denver is seen during sunset.Photo by Zach Betten on Unsplash

Heather Willard / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver County, Colo.) Getting behind the wheel is "the most dangerous thing" the average Coloradan does every day, said Col. Matthew Packard, Colorado State Patrol chief.

In 2021, fatal vehicle crashes hit a 20-year high, rising at least 22% from 2020. The patrol said the surge of impaired drivers likely caused the spike.

The Colorado Department of Transportation reported that 691 people died on Colorado roads in 2021 — the highest number since 2002 when 743 died in Colorado crashes.

On March 3, CDOT, the Colorado Department of Public Safety and AAA released information that shows the connection between impaired drivers using multiple substances and increased fatalities.

Multiple substance users more likely to drive

The three organizations said that Colorado had experienced a 44% increase in fatal crashes involving impaired drivers since 2019.

A Colorado Division of Criminal Justice study of over 26,000 impaired driving cases in 2019 showed 45% of drivers tested positive for multiple substances. The most common combination was alcohol and marijuana (Delta 9-THC). Another 24% were convicted of a DUI involving alcohol, but only 10% of convictions involved drivers who tested positive for only marijuana.

Sam Cole, CDOT communications manager, said the effects of combining alcohol with other substances could be additive or even multiplicative, affecting drivers physically and mentally. The substances range from cannabis to prescription drugs, methamphetamines to narcotics.

"It impairs drivers' cognitive ability to drive, slows reaction time, slows muscle control, limits the ability to multitask," Cole said. "Driving requires us to multitask — reading, steering, lane tracking (and) reaction time all matter, and your perception of time, distance and speed is all affected."

The study found impaired drivers using both marijuana and alcohol, compared to alcohol-only users, were more likely to speed on residential streets, be aggressive drivers or text while behind the wheel.

Pandemic exacerbates substance use

Several reports show how substance abuse increased during the pandemic. A Massachusetts General Hospital report predicts increased alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic will cause higher rates of liver disease and deaths.

The researchers used data from a national survey of U.S. adults on their drinking habits, which found that excessive drinking increased by 21% during the pandemic.

The Center for Disease Control also reported increased substance use and drug overdoses during the pandemic. According to the CDC, over 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the U.S. in the year ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in 12 months.

More training needed to identify impairment

In some cases, the amount of alcohol used in combination with another substance can cause impairment while the driver's blood alcohol content is under the legal limit. Cole said traffic safety officers could receive extra training to ensure they recognize signs of impairment from other substances.

"That officer has to understand the effects of other drugs beyond alcohol on the driver," Cole said. "That's why two-thirds of our state patrol officers have advanced training on drug detection, and we have 150 drug recognition experts throughout the state of Colorado which can be called to the scene of a traffic stop in order to assist in evaluating the driver."

He said the second component to addressing impaired driving is educating drivers on how dangerous impairment can be, especially if it is in combination with other hazardous behavior.

Sgt. Troy Kessler, a Colorado State Patrol public information officer, said impaired drivers involved in crashes often speed, text and fail to stay in their lanes — behaviors that endanger others on the road.

Kessler said the State Patrol, which primarily covers unincorporated roadways statewide, launched a targeted enforcement campaign last year. The campaign added more officers to the three top areas that experience impaired driving and filed more DUI cases. The agency also launched social media campaigns focused on lane violations and impaired driving dangers.

Most crashes occur on the Front Range

The Colorado Division of Criminal Justice's 2022 report showed the counties with the highest number of non-fatal and fatal DUI case filings were El Paso (3,616), Adams (2,817), Larimer (2,344), Jefferson (2,306), Denver (1,817) and Arapahoe (1,763). That trend hasn't changed since 2016.

Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 67 people died in crashes in Denver County in 2021. The Justice Division also determined 40% of drivers who were convicted of DUI and tested positive for multiple substances had the highest crash rates among convicted drivers. Drivers who tested positive only for marijuana had the lowest crash rate at 10%.

Fatality numbers expected to increase

Even with data updated March 1, the number of 2021 traffic fatalities is preliminary and expected to increase to over 700 deaths, Kessler said.

Kessler said traffic fatalities trigger investigations, which take time to close and delay updating statewide data. Initial preliminary numbers listed 672 crash fatalities in Colorado.

Preventing impaired driving

Bystanders can help prevent impaired driving by encouraging friends to find alternatives to driving. Options include offering them rides or even letting them sleep it off on the couch, if possible, Cole said.

"Really, the old adage 'friends don't let friends drive drunk' is still true," Cole said.

Motorists who observe impaired driving can call the State Patrol by dialing *277.

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Public safety reporter in DougCo, Denver metro. Previously: Pueblo Chieftain public safety reporter, Athens Messenger associate editor. Caffeine fiend, cat mom and lover of all things spooky.

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