DENVER — Traffic deaths in Colorado reached their highest levels since 1981 last year.
During a press conference Monday, the Colorado Department of Transportation announced 745 people were killed on Colorado roadways, a 57% increase from a decade ago. A record number of pedestrians and motorcyclists were also killed.
The press conference came on the same day that state lawmakers held their first hearing on a bill to change requirements for younger drivers to obtain a license.
Senate Bill 23-011 would require those 18 and under to complete a 30-hour driver education course, and those 21 and under to complete a four-hour driver awareness course.
Lessons from the road
At the Drive Safe Driving School in Highlands Ranch, senior lead instructor Jake Dinwiddie knows the dangers of driving.
“It's a deadly weapon, if used improperly,” Dinwiddie said.
The driving school offers 30 hours of classroom teaching, behind-the-wheel experience and more. The majority of the people who come through the classrooms are teenagers looking to obtain a learner’s permit or prepare for their driver’s test.
The goal of the program is to make inexperienced drivers feel confident in their decisions and give peace of mind to their families.
Dinwiddie points out that the roads have changed quite dramatically over the past decade between construction and population growth.
“Roads are not getting smaller, they're not getting slower, and they're not getting less complicated. They're getting bigger, faster, and we're getting more cars,” Dinwiddie said. “The laws are constantly changing. And when you think about it, that means the majority of people out on our roads learn something that's probably different than the way it's supposed to be done now.”
Along with the road sizes and traffic changes, Skyler McKinley, regional director of public affairs for AAA, says more policy decisions are being made to encourage multimodal transit options, meaning more potential for cars to interact with pedestrians, cyclists and other vulnerable road users.
“The last time there were significant revisions to what we required was when Colorado was a much smaller state that didn't have all these people living here and interacting with bicycles and pedestrians. It's really not changed in a long time,” McKinley said.
What are the current requirements?
Under current Colorado law, those who are age 15 to 15 ½ are required to take 30 hours of driver’s education courses, complete 50 hours of supervised drive time and six hours of formal behind-the-wheel training for their permit.
To obtain a license, those age 16 to 16 ½ must have six hours of behind-the-wheel training.
However, the older a would-be driver gets, the lower the requirements to obtain a license become.
“I don't understand why something as serious as driving, the idea that just because the calendar turns pages, that we just have to assume that everybody knows how to do it with a high level of sufficiency,” Dinwiddie said.
McKinley, meanwhile, points out that other career courses have much higher standards in order for the professional to obtain a license, even though they are not nearly as dangerous as driving.
“If you want to become a barber, you have to go through 60 hours of classroom education plus apprentice learning time. Same if you want to be a nail technician or if you want to be a notary. People's lives aren't necessarily on the line,” McKinley said.
How would this bill change things?
The bill would add new requirements to drivers under the age of 21 who want to obtain their license.
For people 16 to 18, the bill requires 30 hours of driver education and six hours of behind-the-wheel training. For those 18 to 20, the bill requires 30 hours of drivers education or a four hour driver awareness course.
For those living in rural areas without access to a driving instructor within 30 minutes, the six hours of behind-the-wheel training would change to 12 hours of behind-the-wheel training from a parent.
The bill also offers a $1,000 per student tax credit for the cost of these courses and training.
For the bill’s prime sponsor, State Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, this is a common sense solution to help make roads safer.
“Every single year since 2017, our fatalities have increased year after year after year. We have to start looking at how we make our roads safer,” Winter said.
Winter points out that driving courses have also become much more accessible over the years, with many now being offered online. They are now more affordable, as well.
“AAA offers them for $79. There's online ones offered for $40. We want to make sure that they're affordable, accessible, and we're giving our kids, frankly, the tools they need to drive safely,” Winter said.
Some driver education courses offer scholarships, while others work with the Department of Human Services to help low-income families afford the courses.
Another potential benefit: McKinley says the law change could affect insurance rates moving forward.
“Colorado has some of the fastest rising insurance in the country right now. This is the low hanging fruit. This is how we begin to address that, because this has been an area that we've sort of left uncovered for quite some time,” McKinley said.
At the bill’s first hearing Monday, though, some questions and concerns about the language and intentions of the bill were raised.
First, Kevin Hughes, owner of American Driving Academy, questioned during his testimony whether the tax credit really needed to be as high as $1,000. Hughes said his courses are offered for much cheaper, and that American Driving Academy intentionally try to keep their prices low.
Republicans on the committee, meanwhile, pointed out that rural areas don’t have access to broadband, so these requirements could have a disproportionate impact or put a bigger burden on drivers in those areas.
Both Republicans voted no on the bill, despite its bipartisan support from an interim transportation committee over the summer. Nevertheless, the bill passed its first committee test and moves on through the legislative process.