Transportation

Colorado Speed Limits Too High for Safety, Study Shows

Colorado Speed Limits Too High for Safety, Study Shows
Photo by benjamin lehman on Unsplash
Colorado Department of Transportation stats show that more speed-related fatalities took place on state roadways through the first ten months of 2020 than in all of 2019 — likely because lower traffic volume during the COVID-19 pandemic allowed drivers to go as fast as they wanted, Autobahn-style.

Now, a just-issued crash-test study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety suggests that even sticking to the speed limit can have deadly consequences in a crash. And Skyler McKinley, spokesperson for AAA Colorado, says the data should give pause to automobile commuters here and beyond.

"Colorado is a state that has 70-plus miles-per-hour limits in a lot of places," he points out. "You can get on I-76 right outside of Denver and go 70 legally, and I like driving at that speed. But we need to start having tough conversations about what that costs us, including what it costs us as taxpayers because of all the wrecks, and what that does to our insurance rates."

Most crash tests are conducted using new vehicles, to see how safe they are in collision scenarios. But the AAA Foundation chose instead to deploy three 2010 Honda CR-V EX vehicles "because the average car in the American fleet is about ten years old," McKinley explains. "It's what people are driving now. We chose those cars over every other model because they were the safest cars from 2010, and they represent what's actually out on the roads."


McKinley summarizes the results of the study as "a good news-bad news situation. We tested at three speeds: 40, 50 and 56 miles per hour. And the good news is that at 40 miles per hour, these vehicles did great. There was minimal intrusion on the cockpit, so drivers most likely would be uninjured or lightly injured in a crash; the injuries wouldn't be catastrophic. But at 50 miles per hour, the vehicle became deformed in the crash — serious interior compromise of the vehicle. And at 56 miles per hour, the vehicles were even more severely compromised. The crash-test dummies we used registered severe neck injuries, and they smashed their faces through the air bag into the steering wheel."

In Colorado and elsewhere, McKinley acknowledges, "drivers will regularly speed ten miles per hour over the limit and call it nothing. But literally, that ten miles per hour could be the difference between life and death."

The correlation between speed and fatalities is well established in Colorado, where the two factors have been connected in about a third or more of vehicular deaths going back over a decade. Here are AAA Foundation figures for the state from 2008 through 2018.

2008
Speed-related fatalities: 210
Speed-related fatalities percentage (by total fatalities): 38.3 percent
Speed-related crashes: 181
Speed-related crash percentage (by total crashes): 38.3 percent


2009
Speed-related fatalities: 171
Speed-related fatalities percentage (by total fatalities): 36.8 percent
Speed-related crashes: 156
Speed-related crash percentage (by total crashes): 35.7 percent

2010
Speed-related fatalities: 162
Speed-related fatalities percentage (by total fatalities): 36.0 percent
Speed-related crashes: 142
Speed-related crash percentage (by total crashes): 34.5 percent

2011
Speed-related fatalities: 183
Speed-related fatalities percentage (by total fatalities): 40.9 percent
Speed-related crashes: 156
Speed-related crash percentage (by total crashes): 38.3 percent

2012
Speed-related fatalities: 164
Speed-related fatalities percentage (by total fatalities): 34.6 percent
Speed-related crashes: 146
Speed-related crash percentage (by total crashes): 33.6 percent

2013
Speed-related fatalities: 151
Speed-related fatalities percentage (by total fatalities): 31.3 percent
Speed-related crashes: 131
Speed-related crash percentage (by total crashes): 30.3 percent

2014
Speed-related fatalities: 168
Speed-related fatalities percentage (by total fatalities): 34.4 percent
Speed-related crashes: 152
Speed-related crash percentage (by total crashes): 33.7 percent

2015
Speed-related fatalities: 217
Speed-related fatalities percentage (by total fatalities): 39.7 percent
Speed-related crashes: 192
Speed-related crash percentage (by total crashes): 37.9 percent

2016
Speed-related fatalities: 211
Speed-related fatalities percentage (by total fatalities): 34.7 percent
Speed-related crashes: 188
Speed-related crash percentage (by total crashes): 33.7 percent

2017
Speed-related fatalities: 230
Speed-related fatalities percentage (by total fatalities): 35.5 percent
Speed-related crashes: 208
Speed-related crash percentage (by total crashes): 34.7 percent

2018
Speed-related fatalities: 210
Speed-related fatalities percentage (by total fatalities): 33.2 percent
Speed-related crashes: 195
Speed-related crash percentage (by total crashes): 33.2 percent

The situation became more severe in 2020, when stay-at-home orders kept many drivers off the road. Here's a CDOT graphic comparing speed-related fatal crashes through October of last year to those in 2019:

click to enlarge Note: The data for 2020 has an asterisk because it's considered preliminary and subject to change. - COLORADO DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION
Note: The data for 2020 has an asterisk because it's considered preliminary and subject to change.
Is the AAA Foundation arguing that speed limits in Colorado and around the country should be reduced? McKinley answers the question this way:

"I would say the speed limit should be thought of as a very serious limit — the outer bounds of survivability," he allows. "What we know from this research, and from sixty years of previous research, is that if you're speeding above the speed limit, you're taking a huge risk."

In a crash, he continues, "the safest place you can be is your car — but when you're driving in a city, the difference between 25 miles per hour and 35 miles per hour can lead to the death of a bicyclist or a pedestrian. So it's not enough to say we need to lower every speed limit. We need to look at it as a data point and to remember that crashes are a major cause of congestion — and higher speeds cause more serious crashes."

To McKinley, these factors argue in favor of a calculus many drivers may see as contradictory: "If your aim is to spend as little time on highways like I-70, your goal shouldn't be higher speed limits that cause crashes, or going over the ones that are there. It should be limits that keep you going without seeing brake lights and will actually get you to your destination faster."

Click to read the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study "Impact of Speeds on Drivers and Vehicles" and 2008-2018 fatal crash and speed data by state.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts