While the Catherine Store intersection has a bad reputation thanks to some prominent fatal accidents, many other stretches of Highway 82 saw more accidents in 2020 and 2021. Photo by Will Grandbois

Troopers with the Colorado State Patrol (CSP) are focused on preventing death, injuries and traffic mayhem on Highway 82’s 45-mile stretch from Glenwood Springs to Aspen, until at least the year’s end. The increased patrols come in response to CSP’s several years’ worth of vehicular crash data, requested by the Sopris Sun under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA). Through 2020 and up to mid-November 2021, a total of 384 accidents have been reported. Between 2019 and 2021, 91 crashes resulted in serious bodily injuries and five fatalities, one of which occurred this year.

“The Highway 82 corridor has the potential to become one of the most dangerous state highway corridors in Colorado,” says Frisco-based Captain Jared Rapp, commander of CSP District 4C that includes Summit, Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties. “Highway 82 is a mini-interstate now. It’s like how Interstate 70 was 15 years ago.”

CSP data for 2020 and 2021 combined suggest that Mile Marker 6, south of Glenwood Springs, has been particularly dangerous for drivers, with one fatality and 16 pile-ups — more accidents than at any other single location. While crashes have occurred at many points along Highway 82, at least 30 crashes were reported between Mile Markers 4 and 7, seemingly making this the most accident-prone section of the route.

In second place was the intersection at El Jebel and Highway 82, with five reported crashes in 2021. Smith Hill Road and the Aspen Airport Business Center were other sites of multiple accidents. While many Roaring Fork Valley residents consider Catherine Store a dangerous intersection, CSP data report only one crash there this year. Hitting animals accounted for a total of about 50 crashes in 2020 and 2021.

“As commutes have increased in length over the years, so have the speeds at which commuters are trying to make their daily drives up and down the Valley,” says Rapp. “The drivers on Highway 82 are mainly jockeying for position with their neighbors and fellow commuting residents. It isn’t just your family that is counting on you walking in the door to celebrate your safe return, it is your friends and your neighbors that are anxiously awaiting their loved one’s safe arrival as well.”

Rapp cited excessive speed and a failure to yield the right of way as the two main causes of the 31 injury crashes this year. “Excessive speed” does not only mean driving over the posted limit, but includes driving too fast for weather and traffic conditions. For sober drivers, the top preventable causes of accidents were: inattentive driving, following too closely and lane violations. Although injury accidents caused by alcohol or drug impairment were responsible for fewer crashes this year, the captain warns that this statistic might be an “outlier.” After a significant decline in driving accidents in Colorado involving substance abuse, that number is increasing, he says.

While there has long been zero tolerance for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, state troopers on major and minor roads in Summit, Eagle, and Garfield Counties have been instructed to give sober drivers “less latitude,” says Rapp. The lower tolerance policy went into effect after Thanksgiving. “The results could very well end up being much more serious than a ticket.”

Statewide, “The 2021 crash picture is the worst we have seen in Colorado in over five years,” CSP Chief Col. Matthew C. Packard was quoted as saying in a Nov. 29 departmental press release. By October of 2021, State Patrol data recorded a 60% increase in fatal crashes for the I-70 mountain corridor over the same time last year. Many of the most serious and fatal crashes on the mountain portion of the roadway were on Saturdays, the weekday evening rush hour period and Monday morning rush hours between 6 and 9 a.m.

Rapp can put more troopers on Highway 82 because the State Patrol is temporarily moving additional troopers to enforcement from other details, such as investigations into past accidents. Four CSP troopers live along Highway 82, says Rapp, making more “eyes and enforcement” available. Nevertheless, total CSP staffing is 50% lower than it should be. Rapp says a spate of retirements, coupled by cadet training academy closures during COVID means the Highway Patrol, like many businesses and agencies, is handicapped by personnel shortages.

Whether troopers patrol I-70 or Highway 82, their presence “is the number one deterrent” against poor driving, says Rapp. CSP identifies “keystone” locations, which Rapp defines as points along the highway where seeing a state patrol car improves everyone’s driving for miles in both directions. For example, with strict enforcement on I-70 in South Canyon last June and July, there was a 44% reduction in serious crashes, says Rapp. Elsewhere, when CSP trooper presence was reduced between August and October from the Eisenhower Tunnel to Debeque, there was a 233% increase in serious injury and fatal crashes.

Highway patrolling, says Rapp, “is like eating an elephant. We can’t do it all at one time. We can only manage to take bites.”