AURORA | Roads in Aurora and around the state saw a dramatic increase in traffic deaths in recent years, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Statewide, CDOT said traffic fatalities are up 24 percent since 2014. Last year, Colorado saw 605 traffic fatalities in Colorado, up from 547 in 2015.
In Aurora, there were 32 traffic fatalities last year, up from 25 in 2015 and 19 in 2014.
That’s an overall spike similar to what the state saw. But local police say they are seeing success with a new program aimed at Interstate 70 and Interstate 225 — the two stretches of highway that see the highest speeds and biggest risk of serious injury or death.
The Aurora police department launched a new unit in the summer of 2015 called Highway Enforcement of Aggressive Traffic (HEAT). That unit focuses entirely on the two highways, looking for aggressive or distracted drivers and speeders. They investigate all the crashes on those stretches of road and their patrols are highly visible so motorists learn that there is an increased police presence on those highways through Aurora.
Last year, just two of the cities fatal crashes happened on the interstates, according to preliminary data.
“I think that has definitely made an impact and we are going to continue with that program,” said Officer Kevin Deischel of the department’s traffic section. “Now we are just hoping that people driving on city streets will wear their seat belts and not be distracted while driving.”
Shailen Bhatt, CDOT executive director, said the spike in traffic deaths is a preventable one if people just take some common-sense steps.
“A lot can be done to mitigate the increase; for example, if everyone buckled up we could save over 60 lives per year,” he said.
In Aurora, four of the people who died were not wearing their seat belt.
CDOT said it is planning a safety campaign that will launch in March with the goal of increasing the seat belt use rate beyond the current 84 percent. Statewide, half of the passenger vehicle fatalities in 2016 were unbuckled, CDOT said.
Last year’s spike marked the first time Colorado saw more than 600 traffic deaths since 2005 when there were 606.
“There are several possible reasons for the uptick, such as more people on Colorado’s roadways,” Bhatt said in the statement. “The new data is troubling and represents a call to action for all our traffic safety partners in Colorado because the loss of even one life is one too many.”
Other state officials said if drivers simply pay more attention to the road they could limit some fatal crashes.
“Fatal crashes continue to be a tragic ending for hundreds of people in Colorado each year.” Scott Hernandez, chief of the Colorado State Patrol, said in a statement. “Every life matters. They matter to me, my troopers, and the families suffering from these preventable tragedies. We encourage drivers to make good decisions, avoid distractions, and drive sober. Kick off the new year by buckling up, dropping the distractions and focusing on driving.”