Colorado's speeding problem
I have lived in Colorado for almost a year and one thing about this state has bothered more than any other: speeding. As someone who was hit by a speeding driver I am very sensitive to this issue. Most people shrug at speeding, whether that is on the highway or in town, because they feel they are in control. Going faster means that, when something bad happens, by the time you’ve had time to react your car will have traveled further than if you were moving slower. Once you’ve applied the breaks, it will take longer to stop the vehicle.
Don’t get me wrong, I typically speed at about 5 mph over the given speed limit. While even this is not safe, it is deemed fairly acceptable by most people in the US. Coloradans seem to want to set a different standard. For example, the freeway closest to my house that cuts right through Denver has a speed limit of 55 mph but you will be practically mowed down if you’re not going at least 65 mph. It’s common to see 70+ mph. On busier arteries through the city where the speed limit is 35 mph, I commonly see people doing 45-50 mph.
My main comparison point is California since that is where I lived the entirety of my life so I was curious to see if the speeding problem in Colorado is perception or actually backed up by data. Two things I decided to look at are safety and enforcement.
Traffic safety data on a national level is mostly compiled based on fatalities. To me, fatalities are a poor proxy for overall road safety, especially on highways, since there are many factors that play in to whether someone dies in a vehicle-to-vehicle accident. One of the most important is the safety of the vehicles themselves, which have been continually getting better. Either way, I figured it would be a place to start.
Based on data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) for 2018, California and Colorado rank about the same when it comes to fatalities. California is a more populous state with more miles driven but sees a similar share of fatalities as Colorado.
Finding data on overall accidents was much more challenging. Each state compiles and categorizes this information differently. I had to go through several different state agency sites to collect the data I needed in order to summarize and analyze.
California breaks out data for injury accidents but not property damage only (PDO) accidents like Colorado does. Since injuries and speeding typically go hand-in-hand it is better than nothing for the next level of analysis.
When looking at injuries, again California and Colorado come out about the same in terms of the share of population and miles traveled. Injuries per 1,000 miles of highway is definitely bigger in California but California simply has many more miles of roadway.
In terms of safety, the two states are about the same. That doesn’t mean people aren’t speeding though, it just means it’s not leading to more or more deadly accidents.
Of course, most people who speed don’t get in accidents. That doesn’t mean they aren’t breaking the law or are being safe. Another thing I noticed when I moved to Colorado was the lack of highway patrol basically anywhere. When you drive in California you are constantly vigilant for where the California Highway Patrol (CHP) may be hiding. The state even flies planes over major freeways to identify speeders and inform patrol vehicles they’re heading towards to catch them. In Colorado, on the other hand, it was months before I ever saw a Colorado State Patrol (CSP) vehicle.
Again, I decided to look the data to see how the states compare.
The CHP is about 10x the size of the CSP, which in terms of population is similar per 100,000 residents with California having a slight advantage. In terms of patrol per miles of highway, California far surpasses Colorado. This data definitely backs up the feeling that the CHP is “everywhere” while the CSP is not.
Getting caught speeding is only a concern if you’re worried about the punishment. In this way, California and Colorado are wildly different states.
Anyone who has ever lived in California will tell you that you do not want to get a speeding ticket. Not only is it expensive but you can get points on your driving record that may cause you to lose your license or your insurance rates to go up. In Colorado, on the other hand, the penalty for speeding seems to be a slap on the wrist, if there happens to be a CSP around to catch you.
So, do I still think that Colorado has a speeding problem? Yes, I absolutely do. It doesn’t seem to be causing a dramatic increase in injury or fatality accidents as a share of population or miles driven but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. The reason Coloradans seem to drive at whatever speed they like is that it’s unlikely they’ll encounter a CSP officer on their drive and if they do, they’re not super worried about the monetary consequences. Maybe it’s time to change that.
Note: My personal observations are based only in 2020, which given the covid-19 pandemic has lead to very different roadway usage and behavior. This data is all from 2018. Data and research is only now trickling in but early insights from Jan - Sep 2020 for the US show a 5% increase in roadway fatalities compared to 2019 as a whole.