U.S. Highway 160 between Bayfield and Durango sees some of the highest vehicle crash rates in La Plata County, according to the Colorado State Patrol.
As an urban center, Durango draws visitors and commuters from around the Four Corners. Many people commute on state highways to get to work in the city – like Bayfield residents, who reluctantly admit the town is becoming a bedroom community of Durango. With winter weather and high-traffic areas, law enforcement officers urge drivers to stay aware.
“Our population is going up, so you’re seeing a little more traffic,” said Capt. Adrian Driscoll with state patrol. “You just have to be cognizant of that.”
The 1,465-mile-long highway starts in Colorado at the New Mexico line southwest of Cortez and ends at the Kansas line east of Springfield. In 2018, federal and state data showed the majority of fatal car crashes in La Plata County happen on the highway.
Between Durango and Bayfield, it is a mostly two-lane road where the speed limit reaches 60 mph and where drivers often go faster.
Each day, an average of 15,000 people traveled between Elmore’s Corner and the U.S. Business Bypass from 2004 to 2018 depending on the season, according to Colorado Department of Transportation data.
Within that stretch, Driscoll said more accidents are happening in high-volume intersections, especially during peak commuter hours in the morning and afternoon.
Elmore’s Corner, where Highway 160 and Colorado Highway 172 meet with County Road 234, is a high-traffic area with many crashes, Driscoll said. The Eight Corners intersection in Bayfield, where County Road 501 and Highway 160 meet, is another notable area for collisions.
“If you’re looking specifically at La Plata County, those would be our two biggest areas for crashes, and we devote a lot of resources to those,” he said.
In some cases, drivers follow others too aggressively, get distracted while driving or collide with wildlife, said Bayfield Marshal Joe McIntyre.
“I hear calls all the time come over dispatch for aggressive driving – unsafe passing, speeding, passing on double-yellow lines,” he said.
Both Driscoll and McIntyre are paying attention to possible impacts from population growth.
The Durango area’s population grew by 22% from 2000 to 2017, from about 27,300 to 33,400 residents. In 2017, 68% of the people who worked in the city of Durango lived outside the city, according to census data.
The Bayfield area’s population grew by 42% from 2000 to 2017, from about 6,600 to 9,300 residents. In 2017, 42% of the workforce in the town of Bayfield commuted to jobs in Durango, according to census data.
Four fatal crashes happened between the two communities from 2015 to 2018. La Plata County saw 36 fatal crashes over the same time period.
On average, 66 crashes occurred each year between 2004 and 2018 on the highway between Bayfield and Durango. The vast majority happened on dry roads, and more than half involved wild animals. Occasionally, drivers crashed into fixed objects or rear-ended other vehicles.
“We’re one of the highest in the state with animal-caused crashes,” Driscoll said. “You can pretty much name any kind of wild animal, we’ve covered it.”
Crashes do not seem to be dependent on traffic volumes, said Lisa Schwantes, spokeswoman with the Colorado Department of Transportation in the Southwest region.
“When it’s all said and done, the No. 1 cause of crashes is driver behavior,” she said.
Of the four fatalities, one happened when a driver turned from County Road 225 onto Highway 160 into an oncoming vehicle. Another driver ran off the road, overcorrected then collided with an oncoming vehicle. The other fatalities involved drugs or alcohol.
McIntyre recommended vehicles stay at least six car lengths behind other drivers, especially in the winter. If road conditions are bad, drivers should double the distance, he said.
“You just gotta take your time and go with traffic,” Driscoll said. “One of our big safety messages is always wear your seat belt.”