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Colorado traffic deaths involving impaired drivers have increased significantly in recent years, including cases in which drivers had more than one impairing substance in their system, the Colorado Department of Transportation said Thursday.

In 2021, 691 people were killed on Colorado roads — a 50% increase from 2011. Since 2019, the state has seen a 44% increase in the number of fatal wrecks involving impaired drivers.

“Colorado’s increase in traffic fatalities can be attributed to numerous causes, but impaired driving is a substantial one,” CDOT Highway Safety Manager Glenn Davis said during a press conference to raise awareness about the dangers of poly-impaired driving.

“One-third of all the traffic fatalities (in Colorado) last year involved an impaired driver.”

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Recent CDOT data show that both crashes and impaired driving arrests involving multiple substances, such as alcohol and marijuana used together, are prevalent throughout the state.

A January report published by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice analyzed more than 26,000 impaired driving cases filed in 2019 and found that 45% of those drivers tested positive for multiple substances.

The most common combination of substances, the report found, were alcohol and Delta 9-THC, the primary psychoactive component in marijuana that may indicate recent use. The second most common pairing was alcohol and other drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine and opioids.

The report also found that 68% of individuals with detected Delta-9 THC in their system had some other substance present, alcohol being the most common.

Beginning in July 2019, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) began providing alcohol and drug toxicology testing to all Colorado law-enforcement agencies investigating suspected impaired driving cases.

After the launch of the state-sponsored toxicology testing, which was funded through marijuana tax revenues, CBI found no change in the alcohol results in DUI cases, but saw that both Delta-9 THC and poly-drug cases increased by 14%.

State research has also shown that the combined use of substances increases an individual’s risk of being in a crash.

“We looked at the rate of crash involvement in convicted drivers and found that combining more than one impairing substance had a significant impact on crash rates,” said Allison Rosenthal, a DUI statistical analyst with the Colorado Department of Public Safety (CDPS).

“Drivers who tested positive for alcohol, other drugs and/or cannabis were involved in crashes at one-and-a-half times the rate of those who tested positive for alcohol alone, and at four times the rate of convicted drivers who tested positive for cannabis alone.”

Rosenthal said CDPS has not identified demographic commonalities of poly-substance impaired drivers, but noted overall, DUIs skew higher in males, particularly in the 26-to-34 age range, which is also the group that’s most likely to report binge drinking in public health surveys.

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Skyler McKinley, regional director of public affairs for AAA Colorado, said AAA’s traffic safety research has found that drivers who use both marijuana and alcohol are “significantly more likely to drive impaired compared to those who only drink alcohol but don’t use cannabis.”

He said AAA’s research also found that those who drink alcohol and consume cannabis are more likely to speed, text, run red lights and drive aggressively.

“Choosing to use alcohol or cannabis is just that — it’s a personal choice and there are safe ways to use both drugs,” McKinley said.

“There’s just no safe way to drive under the influence of either. So get a ride-share, call a friend, wait until you’re sober, or just stay where you’re at … lives are at stake every time you get behind the wheel.”

CDOT’s efforts to reverse the trend of poly-impaired driving are primarily focused on prevention and raising awareness.

Colorado law-enforcement agencies have more than 150 specially trained Drug Recognition Experts statewide and CDOT’s Highway Safety Office offers every officer in the state the opportunity to participate in a training program called ARIDE, which teaches them to detect impaired drivers.

In the coming year, according to CDOT, Colorado agencies will implement a variety of enforcement, education and research initiatives to increase safety on Colorado roads and prevent impaired driving.

Chieftain reporter Zach Hillstrom can be reached at zhillstrom@gannett.com or on Twitter @ZachHillstrom

This article originally appeared on The Pueblo Chieftain: Impaired driving a growing concern in Colorado as fatal wrecks soar

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