Aurora police push to stem rate of traffic deaths

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AURORA | In just the first four months of 2015, 15 people were killed in crashes on Aurora’s roads, just four shy of the total from all of 2014.

After a fiery crash on Interstate 70 that killed two men in early April, police Chief Nick Metz pleaded with motorists to drive safer.

“Lives and families are being destroyed by incidents that could have been prevented,” Metz said.

The message — with help from an increased focus on highway safety — seems to have sunk in.

The city ended 2015 with 25 traffic fatalities. That’s still more than there were in 2014 but a steep drop from the pace during the early part of the year.

“We started very, very poor, but then it got better as the year went on,” said Officer Al Graham of the department’s traffic section.

According to preliminary statistics, traffic accidents in general were up in Aurora last year 12 percent, from 11,698 in 2014 to 13,104 last year.

Graham said the pace of fatal crashes slowed in part because the department increased its focus on the two interstates that cut through town: I-70 and I-225.

The department in July assigned a group of traffic officers to a new unit called Highway Enforcement of Aggressive Traffic (HEAT). 

That unit, Graham said, focuses entirely on the two highways, looking for aggressive or distracted drivers and speeders.

They investigate all the crashes on those stretches of road, Graham said.

And, perhaps most importantly, the unit’s patrols are highly visible so motorists learn that there is an increased police presence on those highways through Aurora and hopefully drive safer.

“People are seeing us up there more so they know they are there,” he said.

The unit — which consists of Sgt. Bill Revelle and six officers, usually on motorcycles — first took to the road in August. Before that, there had been five fatalities on the city’s interstates. Since then, there haven’t been any.

As he cruised east on I-70 on a recent morning, Revelle said the city’s highways are safer than they have been in his six years working with the motorcycle enforcement team.

“I think it’s pretty clear that we are up here and it’s had a significant effect on the number of violations we are seeing,” he said.

Revelle said there are still some stretches of highway that are worse than others, including southbound I-225 near Parker Road, where traffic bottlenecks and leads to crashes sometimes.

And Revelle said just about a month ago officers nabbed a speeder doing 138 MPH on I-70.

But overall, officers don’t see as many speeders or aggressive drivers as they once did.

Officers issued 12-percent fewer traffic tickets last year than they did in 2014, according to preliminary statistics.

Revelle said tickets are down in part because the officers assigned to the HEAT unit are focused on the highway and not on traffic enforcement on other roads the way they once were.

Beyond the dip in fatal crashes, Revelle said the unit has also helped clear accidents from the highway quicker than in the past, which means fewer traffic jams.

“It’s keeping the highways much clearer,” he said.

Graham said the traffic section has also tried to reach out to the community more through social media and with visits to community groups, encouraging them to wear seat belts, eliminate distractions and obey traffic laws.

Statewide, traffic fatalities are trending upward after several years of decline, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.

In 2002 there were 677 traffic deaths around the state but that number fell steadily over the next several years to 407 in 2011. Since then, the numbers have inched up and last year, according to preliminary numbers from CDOT, there were 506. Through Feb. 8 of this year, there have been 26 traffic deaths, according to CDOT.

Denver had the most traffic fatalities last year with 50, followed by Aurora with 25 and Colorado Springs with 23, according to CDOT.