Garfield County leads in fatal I-70 crashes
Garfield County’s flatter, smoother straightaways may seem less treacherous than mountain passes to the east, but the county has the most deadly crashes on Interstate 70 west of the Denver metro area than any other county, a Post Independent data analysis found.
In addition, most of the fatal crashes on I-70 in Garfield County over the past 10 years occurred on dry roads in broad daylight.
Long, flat stretches encourage faster driving than in the mountains and can sometimes lull people to sleep, said Colorado State Patrol Troop 4C Capt. Richard Duran.
“These are high numbers. I think one is too many, and we’re trying to prevent some of these from happening,” said Duran.
Crash data from the Colorado Department of Transportation shows that from 2006 through 2015, the I-70 corridor west of the Denver metro area has seen 160 fatal wrecks, killing 181 people.
Across the I-70 mountain corridor, the vast majority of fatal wrecks happen in dry road conditions and clear weather. One hundred thirty-one of the fatal crashes occurred on dry roads, while only eight occurred on icy roads, three on muddy or slushy roads, eight on snowy roads and 10 on wets roads.
Most fatal wrecks on the I-70 corridor also happen during the day, though the proportion isn’t as striking. All together, 87 of the interstate’s fatal wrecks in the last 10 years have been during daylight. By comparison, 62 of them were after dark and 11 at dawn or dusk.
The stretch of I-70 that runs through Garfield County has seen 47 of those fatal crashes, killing 55 people in 10 years. During the period studied, Garfield County had the most fatal wrecks and highest number of fatalities compared with other western Colorado counties on I-70. The data covered Mesa, Eagle, Summit and Clear Creek counties.
Over the 10 years, the number of I-70 fatalities per year has stayed relatively steady. Garfield averages between four and five fatal wrecks per year, though 2008 and 2015 had seven fatal crashes each.
In Garfield County too, most fatal crashes occurred during good diving conditions.
In 42 of Garfield County’s fatal wrecks, the road conditions were dry with no inclement weather, compared with one fatal wreck on icy roads, one on snowy roads and three on wet roads.
In terms of lighting, 23 of these were during the daylight, 18 were at dark and six were during dawn or dusk.
Nearly half of these fatal wrecks were rollovers. The next biggest accident types are vehicles going into an embankment (seven), vehicles hitting a guardrail (three) and head-on collisions (three).
CDOT data show 19 of the Garfield County wrecks — 40 percent — involved impaired drivers. Ten fatal wrecks involved alcohol, four involved alcohol and/or other drugs and five involved medications.
In the last 10 years, Garfield County has also seen a slightly higher proportion of the western I-70 corridor’s fatal wrecks than match its share of miles on that corridor.
Out of about 250 miles of the I-70 corridor from the Utah boarder through Clear Creek County, about 26 percent of that distance runs through Garfield County. However, the county has seen about 30 percent of the fatal wrecks in the corridor west of the Denver metro area.
Colorado State Patrol Capt. Duran said fatal accidents in Garfield County are sporadically placed, making it difficult for troopers to predict where the next one might occur.
Troopers try to crunch this information and develop an attack plan, perhaps to patrol more heavily in an area that seems to have more serious wrecks. But often troopers see a shotgun pattern of fatal crashes occurring all along the interstate.
The captain views the interstate through Garfield County as different than the rest of the mountain interstate corridor.
The interstate goes from mountainous areas of Clear Creek County, Summit County and Vale Pass and begins to flatten out in the western portion of Eagle County, he said.
Then it becomes longer straightaways in Garfield County with some dangerous curves.
Specifically on Duran’s mind were Glenwood Canyon and South Canyon for being high-wreck areas, though not necessarily for fatal wrecks.
Duran said his troopers see serious crashes in the spring, summer and fall, often due to high speeds on the long straight stretches.
The desolate stretches in the western part of Garfield County also lull some drivers to sleep.
CDOT data shows seven of Garfield County’s fatal wrecks involved drivers asleep at the wheel or fatigued. However, Duran said the CSP can’t always prove that dozing at the wheel was a cause, and 29 of these fatal wrecks list “unknown” or “none apparent” under factors contributing to the crash.
Duran said the speed these drivers are traveling is a big factor in what makes these wrecks fatal. But that doesn’t mean they were necessarily speeding.
Most of these wrecks involved people going at or below 75 mph. Only 14 of the primary vehicles involved were traveling faster.
Troopers have also seen some deaths involving pedestrians on the interstate, even good Samaritans killed while they’re on foot trying to assist another wreck.
Failure to wear a seat belt has also significantly contributed to making wrecks deadly, said Duran.
“The biggest message for us is to use your seat belt if you want to avoid being ejected, or partially ejected, and being in a fatal crash,” said the captain. “And if you feel yourself falling asleep, pull over and take a nap instead of pushing your luck.”
Drivers should also cut out distractions in the vehicle, like cell phones, he said. “Focus on looking out miles in front of your car instead of looking only at what’s right in front of you. Drive ahead of your hood.”
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Garfield County is staying at a moderate level of restrictions, despite higher incidence rates, and commissioners are worried about potential effects on businesses that shutdowns could bring.