While most things still look different since the pandemic crisis turned the world upside down, the new normal behind the wheel is a lot like the old normal.
Easy prime-time commutes to and from Aurora most motorists marveled about in March have slowly become the usual grind of gridlock and grimace.
But the pandemic has drawn new attention to old problems, and even changed some. Long-term construction headaches, far too many cars in places unable to handle them, and the angst of the virus on top of the angst of everything else are a bad mix, traffic and safety experts say. Here’s a look at where metro traffic woes stand as Colorado struggles with the new normal created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Colorado’s Race to the Bottom
It’s not your imagination. Race-car driving is all the road rage these days.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the American Automobile Association, state highway and safety officials and your own eyes agree that there are more people pulling road stunts that police say should be limited to video games and professional race tracks.
The AAA has conducted a host of studies during the past several years, each one revealing that more Americans are driving faster, meaner and more recklessly each year.
“Aggressive driving is extremely common among U.S. drivers,” AAA officials said in a statement.
Recent surveying by AAA revealed that half of all American drivers admitted to pushing close to or right up someone’s bumper to “punish” them for pulling into their lane.
About 95 million of the nation’s licensed 200 million motorists said they’d yelled at other drivers or honked at them in displeasure. Only a third said they offered others on the road a one-fingered salute.
On the worst end of road-raging, an astounding 3%, 6 million drivers, admitted to bumping or ramming into another car on purpose out of anger.
Many experts say what appears to be an increase in complaints and sightings of dangerous driving is partly due to most stunts being a crime of opportunity. Speeding and weaving doesn’t happen when the road clogs to a halt. But less traffic offers enough space between cars to tempt the worst of the worst, state patrol officials say.
The feds, through the NHTSA, say that by far, the most dangerous and common aggressive driving problems are speeding, running “orange” and red lights, and trying to pull Indy 500 maneuvers on Interstate 25 and other metro freeways.
Not only does their research show a regular 5% bump each year in the number of crashes associated with aggressive driving, a AAA survey reveals that about 90% of the nation considers highway speed demons and road-runners a “serious” safety threat.
A growing number of states have tried creating legislation to address the issue, creating special crimes for the special ways some drivers commute. Colorado has stood back from that, depending mostly on the Colorado State Patrol to ticket scofflaws when they can.
Part of the problem with nabbing motoring road nuisances is the fleeting nature of the crime. A car zipping past you on I-225 when you’re already doing 5 or 10 over the speed limit comes and goes before you can close your gaping jaw.
“Manpower is an issue for us as well,” said Colorado State Patrol spokesman Trooper Josh Lewis. There are more than 185,000 miles of roads in the state. There’s no way CSP can be where all the action is.
Instead, they depend on drivers to report the stuff that makes motorists grip the wheel and hold their breath.
The state has long had a program allowing people to report drunk or dangerous drivers by calling *277 (CSP).
“It’s not an alternative for 911,” Lewis says. If you witness a crash, call rescuers. But dispatchers get the *277 call and make a determination if they can dispatch a nearby trooper to nab a wheel threat to life and limb on the road.
Lewis says CSP officials record the information and make determination what to do. If you’re able to provide a fairly detailed description of the car, the driver and the event, they might even go knocking on someone’s door.
If someone can provide real evidence, like a video or photo, that helps even more.
But do not, ever, try to take videos or photos while driving, police say.
“That makes you just as much a danger as the person you’re trying to turn in,” Lewis said. Have the passenger do the filming, and even the *277 call if they can. If you’re alone in the car, make sure you’re able to safely manage reporting incidents to dispatchers, Lewis said.
But do report. “We need the information,” Lewis said.
If you’re like most motorists and other researchers, you see shocking stunts of race-like weaving through traffic, passing on medians and shoulders or blazing at far faster than 100 mph, and ask, “why?”
“It’s mostly a selfish attitude” among reckless drivers, Lewis said. “They think there will be no consequences, so, ‘why not.”
There are consequences, he said. Three things drive the increase in painful, expensive and sometimes deadly crashes: Driving drunk, driving distracted and driving aggressively.
National experts agree. Even during the pandemic, while traffic counts were down, first drastically, and still measurably, the crashes have continued to mount.
A deep study from the last decade by the NHTSA into why more people are meaner behind the wheel revealed a few insights.
First of all, the demographics show it’s an everybody problem. Young, old, minority, white, rich, poor, male, female, aggressive driving culprits represent everyone and everywhere in the nation.
Sociologists involved in the study pointed to “fragmentation of society and the disintegration of shared values and sense of community” in explaining why people act like jerks behind the wheel.
Others pointed to the anonymity associated with driving and the sheer power of a modern car as creating a license to do whatever you want. Some researchers blame endless movies and games with car-chase scenes that too many people see as instructional material and not total fiction, absent a disclaimer that says, “do not try this at home.”
Traffic engineers say it’s really more a function of more cars on roads unable to handle the volume, pushing the weakest among us into dangerous behaviors.
We’ve all seen it and many of us have done it. You sit in gridlocked traffic for a while, suddenly, the road opens up and you speed to the next bottleneck, braking quickly and inviting disaster, traffic analysts say.
As far as the racing and speed-weaving on Colorado roads, Lewis points to what he sees as a total disconnect to reality. He said that particular problem is often a crime committed by younger, less experienced drivers who don’t understand the reality of the road and overestimate their ability behind the wheel of a car they think can do what it can’t.
“Physics will impact you regardless of who you are or what you’re driving,” he said. Consumer vehicles at the hands of commuter drivers cannot get away with stunts drivers try and pull.
“It may not happen tomorrow, but it’s going to happen,” Lewis said.
For a living, he’s seen it happen, a lot.
— Dave Perry, Staff Writer
If you’re still seeing lots of cyclists on the road, you’re not seeing double.
Cycling has enjoyed a sustained uptick in interest since the pandemic cloistered the metro area and the world in March. On the ground, that still means bike shops are slammed with lines of customers searching vainly for a brand-new ride, parts or maintenance.
Jack Todd, communications and policy manager for Bicycle Colorado, said the summer has continued to be a popular one for greenhorn cyclists sick of staying inside.
“We heard from tons of people early on who were saying, ‘Oh my God, it’s so nice to get out on a ride right now,” Todd told the Sentinel. One estimate, from Montreal-based Eco-Counter, had a more than 20% increase in urban-area cycling from March through mid-June compared to that period in 2019, the Los Angeles Times reported.
If you own a crusty construction of cables, bars and wheels, you’ve likely discovered that the newfound boom in cycling quickly translated into swamped bike shops. After March, some bike shops even began booking out maintenance and consulting slots weeks in advance.
As summer dwindles, Todd said he’s still hearing that bike shops are “incredibly busy.”
That’s true for Colorado Cycling Company, which hocks and services bikes and parts in two Aurora locations. Andrew Quirk, manager of the location near the intersection of East Iliff Avenue and South Buckley Road, said staff have only gotten some relief for the lines in the last week-and-a-half.
Quirk said, since the pandemic began, the shop has been “insane.”
“Absolutely nuts,” he said. “We are busier than we have ever been.”
The shop sold out of its new bikes in mid-May, Quirk said. Only in the fall will new models become available again — although sporadically. Viewers of the Colorado Cycling Company are still greeted with a prominent message reading, “Due to high demand, please call the shop to confirm availability before placing a bike order online.”
Quirk said he’s mostly seeing customers wheel in used bikes they’d bought off second-hand forums, like Craigslist. Or, they drop off a dusty bike that’s been sitting in the garage.
Although interest in cycling generally mellows as the weather turns colder, Quirk cautioned that patience is still a virtue. He said some customers become “agitated” upon hearing that the shop doesn’t have a necessary bike part in stock.
— Grant Stringer, Staff Writer
It’s Still Construction Season
The journey south, from Castle Rock into Colorado Springs is about 18 miles. But for the last two years that trip has felt a lot longer thanks to the I-25 Gap South Project, which is adding an express lane to the mix.
Eventually, the trip will be smooth — fingers crossed —but that day isn’t today. The hellish highway, which can easily become a parking lot when one bumper smacks another, is slated to finish in 2022.
The four-year-long project isn’t the only ongoing Interstate headache still ongoing during the pandemic, either. The Colorado Department of Transportation cites seven total projects on I-25 and 16 on Interstate 70, which stretches from the state’s eastern border to the western.
Traffic officials say despite the virus, the work must continue. They’ve implemented social distancing guidelines for road workers.
Anybody who dwells north of El Paso County who has isolated long enough that the $350 million Gap project has become a distant memory has clearly not had a hankering for Pueblo green chile or a quiet weekend of hiking the southern edge of the San Isabel National Forest. Those of us who long for a little time in the state’s banana belt will willingly pay the price of the Gap for a dose of good food and less crowded trails.
There are few options in avoiding I-25 between Castle Rock and Colorado Springs, so if you’re venturing out and back, here’s what you (still) need to know:
- There are lots of lane and ramp closures. Check CDOT before you hit the road.
- This route is still packed with boats, campers and bros not connecting their brake lights on the weekend return from camping. Beware.
- Slower speeds are posted, per the large, blinking signs, but some drivers seem to have mistaken the 18-mile stretch for a speedway course on off-peak times. Slow down and we’ll all get where we’re headed a little faster.
— Kara Mason, Staff Writer
Traffic Counts Still Down in Aurora, Returning to Normal Statewide
Colorado’s hoi polloi — Sentinel staffers squarely included — have largely returned to the seats behind their steering wheels as the world has slowly reopened this summer, though traffic volumes are still marginally below what they were last year, according to data released by the state Department of Transportation.
Across the Centennial State, traffic volumes on interstates last week were about 85% of what they were over the same period in August last year, according to CDOT’s weekly travel report. On state highways, such as Aurora’s strip of East Colfax Avenue and South Havana Street, volumes were down just 6% from what they were in 2019.
“In the Denver metro area, traffic levels are about 90% of where they were,” said Tamara Rollison, spokesperson for the state transportation department. “It’s very close to being back up to normal. We’re not quite there, but it’s really, really close.”
Rollison said that traffic counts along Interstate 70 through Clear Creek and Summit Counties have already started matching and surpassing thresholds set last year as cooped-up city dwellers seek respites in the Rockies.
“People are getting out in the mountains when they can, and so they have taken to the I-70 mountain corridor,” she said. “Traffic gets really high on Friday evenings or early Saturday mornings.”
The Thursday before the Fourth of July weekend, for example, traffic counts were up by 21% over the same day last year, data show. Rollison warned that a similar inundation of motorists could be on the horizon this Labor Day Weekend.
“We do anticipate some heavy traffic,” she said of the upcoming holiday.
The picture isn’t as dire in Aurora proper, however, as traffic counts along the city’s primary highway, Interstate 225, have remained about 30% below what they were last year almost every day this summer, according to CDOT. In the Adams County portion of the Interstate north of East Colfax Avenue, there have been about 20,000 fewer drivers per day than there were in 2019 almost every day since May.
But that’s still an increase from the nearly 60% daily reductions the arterial was seeing in late March and early April as residents were urged to stay in their homes to stave the spread of COVID-19.
“That was probably the lowest our volume ever was,” Rollison said of statewide traffic counts in the early spring.
It was around that time that a rash of lead-footed speedsters took advantage of the region’s tumbleweed-ridden ribbons of asphalt, according to Trooper Josh Lewis, spokesperson for Colorado State Patrol. He said that state troopers, who are tasked with patrolling state highways and interstates, saw a bump in the number of tickets being written for significantly excessive speeds — up to 39 miles per hour over the speed limit.
“Your average speeding ticket is in the 10 to 19 miles per hour over range in terms of what the statute says,” Lewis said. “But, yes, there was a higher than normal influx of those higher speeds than we typically see — those 20 to 25 miles per hour over.”
Driving 10 to 14 miles per hour over the speed limit in a 65-mile-per-hour zone is by far the most common traffic ticket issued in Aurora, according to police records. About 1,000 such citations are issued each month, though that dropped to a low of 334 tickets this May.
In Aurora, Lewis said that drivers accustomed to clogged roadways may have suddenly felt free to press their accelerators given the reduced traffic counts.
“It’s one of those areas where if you have people used to a lot of traffic and now there’s significantly less, folks may not be paying attention to their speed or maybe they are and they’re trying to take advantage of those clear roadways,” he said.
Data on State Patrol traffic citations were not available by press time due to a technical data keeping malfunction at the department, a spokesperson said.
But statistics provided by the Aurora Police Department corroborated Lewis’ claims: Local officers wrote 108 more traffic tickets for people driving at least 20 miles per hour over the speed limit between May and Aug. 15 of this year than they did in the same span in 2019.
Overall, however, Aurora cops have issued drastically fewer traffic tickets than they did last year, according to statistics provided by the department.
Aurora traffic officers wrote just 14,566 traffic tickets through Aug. 23, which marks a roughly 37% decrease from the 23,275 citations inked over the same time frame last year.
Accidents on Aurora roads have also been down by about the same percentage, according to Matt Longshore, spokesman for the Aurora Police Department. Officers wrote about 1,000 fewer tickets for the three primary violations related to traffic accidents in the city between March and Aug. 15. Those violations are: careless driving, failure to present insurance and taking right of way on a left turn.
There were 135 fewer county court summonses written or physical arrests made related to those charges between March and August of this year, too.
That’s in spite of an increase in DUIs and fatal crashes statewide, Lewis said.
— Quincy Snowdon, Staff Writer