Colorado is a state with 82 percent of its 5.2 million people concentrated along the Front Range from Fort Collins to Pueblo. And a state with vast sweeps of rural land, including three of the nation’s 15 least-populous counties.
Those realities have spawned a patchwork emergency medical system where a wide disparity exists between the on-the-ground care you could expect along a rural highway and what you would see along the urbanized Front Range. And that disparity dramatically impacts your chances of living or dying if you’re involved in a serious highway accident.
I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS examined 10 years of traffic fatality data, compiled by the Colorado Department of Transportation, and then compared it to the average population in each county over a decade – calculating a rate equal to the number of deaths per 10,000 residents in road crashes.
The five counties with the highest rate of traffic fatalities – Mineral, Cheyenne, San Juan, Kiowa and Baca – are all small, remote counties, and four of them lost population in the first decade of the 21st century. Two of them are among the three Colorado counties with less than 1,000 residents.
On the flip side, the five counties with the lowest rate of traffic deaths – Arapahoe, Boulder, Jefferson, Douglas and Denver – are in the highly populated metropolitan area.
One key factor is the speed of access to high level care.
“The ‘Golden Hour’ is a real thing,” said Dr. Gregory Jurkovich, chief of surgery at Denver Health Medical Center. “The concept is valid – you have a limited amount of time before you’ve lost your opportunity to save someone’s life.”
A recent report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration underscores the I-News findings. Examining the year 2011, the report found that 51 percent of those killed in Colorado traffic accidents were on rural roads. Nationally, the figure was 55 percent.
Rural highways are so designated by state highway departments.
While traffic deaths have declined generally in recent decades, the NHTSA reported that rate of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was significantly higher in rural areas than in urban ones, 1.82 compared to .73.
Eliminating such disparities would be complex and expensive. One state that has tried to tackle the problem is Maryland, where a statewide fleet of emergency medical helicopters is paid for by an additional license plate fee.