Driving in Colorado
When most Americans picture life in Colorado, they probably don't immediately think of driving. Many other modes of transportation might come to mind, though. There's plenty of opportunity for biking, from mountain trails to city parks. Then there's the skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling – after all, the state is home to some of the country's best-known ski resorts. There's always whitewater rafting down the Arkansas River, or hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. Not to mention that many people reach Colorado by air; Denver International Airport is enormous, the largest in the United States.
But Coloradans do have cars, and they do use them to get around. Living in one of the country's biggest states, with over 100,000 square miles of land, residents can have a long way to travel between the towns scattered throughout the state. They also have a choice of many attractions, from state forests to national monuments, spread out across mountains, deserts, and plains. But on most days, locals aren't setting out across the stunning landscapes that earned this place the nickname “Colorful Colorado." They're just trying to get to work. And given that over 60 percent of Colorado's 5.5 million residents live along the Front Range – either in Denver, the capital, or a string of other large cities – commuting can be as time consuming here as in any other large urban area.
Whether you're one of those daily commuters, or someone who uses your vehicle just for fun, cruising one of Colorado's 26 scenic byways or traversing historic mountain passes, here's what you need to know before hitting the road in the Centennial State:
Auto Insurance in Colorado
All Colorado drivers are required to have liability insurance. This covers only the other car and/or other driver when an accident is determined to be your fault. The minimum liability coverage a driver in Colorado must have is as follows:
- $25,000 per person for bodily injury
- $50,000 per accident for bodily injury
- $15,000 per accident for property damage
Insurance providers in Colorado must offer the option to purchase uninsured/uninsured motorist coverage, which pays for damages if you are in an accident with a driver who is not insured. Other types of coverage, including collision (which covers damage to your vehicle), comprehensive (which covers damage resulting from events like weather or theft), and medical (which covers injuries sustained in an accident) are also optional.
Drivers must provide proof of insurance when they register a vehicle, if they are involved in an accident, or if they are stopped by a police officer.
Colorado's Car Culture
Though the stereotype that everyone in Colorado drives a Subaru is just that, there is some truth in it. According to AAA Colorado, five of the state's ten most popular vehicles are made by the famously outdoorsy brand. Perhaps more notably, nine of the top ten are sport utility vehicles, which speaks to the demands of Colorado's winter weather, mountain roads, and adventurous residents.
But long before the advent of the SUV, Coloradans were braving the mountains on wheels. The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, in which drivers race to summit the 14,115-foot mountain in Colorado Springs, began in 1916. The race course, which has 156 turns, is especially challenging due to the high altitude, which tests the stamina of cars as well as drivers.
Still, for the majority of Colorado's population, who live and work along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains in the Front Range Urban Corridor, it's all about the commute. Colorado workers can often be found driving to or from Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Pueblo, and the cities and towns in between.
Your Mileage May Vary
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), Coloradans drove an average of 13,443 miles in 2014. That's like driving back and forth on I-70 from the Utah border to the Kansas border about 29 times. As exhausting as it sounds, it's not worse than the national average – in fact, it's almost exactly the same as the amount of miles driven nationwide, which came out to 13,476 miles in 2014.
The Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) found that in 2013, 74.7 percent of Colorado's workers drove to work alone, 9.7 percent carpooled, 3.3 percent took public transportation, under 5.5 percent walked or biked to work, and 6.9 percent worked from home. (Colorado has one of the highest percentages of telecommuters in the country.)
Colorado commuters reported a mean travel time of 22.9 minutes getting to the workplace. Compared to the rest of the country that's not bad; the mean commuting time for the United States overall was 24.7. But a Denver-area commute can take longer, and the drive can be unpredictable. Accidents, events, and overcrowded roads can cause delays as more and more people pour into the region to work. And that's in good weather – short drives can stretch out for hours when it snows.
Urban vs. Rural Roads
Two major Interstates bisect Colorado, I-70 from east to west and I-25 from north to south. The state's other roads range from state highways to county roads and city streets.
In 2015, urban road accidents accounted for 52 percent of the 546 traffic fatalities in the state of Colorado, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data. This is a shift from 2010, when 55 percent of traffic deaths in the state occurred as a result of rural accidents.
Many factors contribute to where crashes happen and how deadly they are, and determining which areas are more dangerous and why can be a complex process. But Colorado's numbers may simply reflect the state's changing demographics. Denver's population grew by almost 23 percent between 2010 and 2015, even as rural areas dropped in population. In July 2017, the Denver Post noted that 23 of the state's 64 counties now classify as frontier, with fewer than 7 residents per square mile.
The Price of Gas
Gas prices in Colorado averaged around $2.44 a gallon in October of 2017, though you'll pay more or less at the pump depending on where you are – for example, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs are slightly more expensive than Denver. That might feel like a lot, especially because fuel was cheaper one year ago, costing about $2.11 in Denver compared with this year. Still, Colorado drivers are doing a bit better than some other Americans; the average gas price across the United States tends to be higher than in the Centennial State.
Regardless of the typical price fluctuations and local differences, you may want to reduce the amount you spend on fuel. If so, there are many small changes you can make to increase the fuel efficiency of your vehicle.
The Unemployment Rate
As of July 2017, Colorado's unemployment rate was 2.4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's the second lowest unemployment rate in the country. (The nationwide unemployment rate for July was 4.3 percent.)
Though it's not always immediately obvious, a state's unemployment rate affects its driving habits in several ways. For one, when more people are working, more drivers are commuting, and roads are more crowded. For another, lower unemployment rates mean more disposable income, some of which will be spent on gas and new vehicles, also leading to more drivers and more congestion. Some of that extra cash will also go towards shopping, dining out, and enjoying other non-essential activities that get them out on the roads. (A Broncos game, perhaps.)
Because Colorado's overall high employment rate is even higher in the state's metro areas, residents of larger cities may notice the greatest impact on local traffic.
Distracted driving can be caused by anything from eating or smoking behind the wheel to interacting with passengers. In Colorado, the Department of Transportation (CDOT) defines it as “the act of driving while engaged in anything – texting, looking after children or pets, talking on the phone or to a passenger, watching videos, eating, or reading – that takes a driver's focus away from the road." They have also called it an “epidemic," warning that distracted driving-related crashes and fatalities have been increasing in the state in recent years.
Colorado prohibits texting behind the wheel, although – somewhat controversially – since the law was changed in June 2017, this only applies when the act of texting constitutes “careless" driving. (That means texting while stopped at a red light or stuck in traffic is legal, but determining exactly which texting behaviors fall into the careless driving category is up to individual law enforcement officers.) As a part of the new law, legislators increased the penalty for texting while driving from $50 to $300, or more if a crash causing an injury or death occurs, and increased the points a texting violation can add to a driver's license from one to four. Drivers caught texting can also potentially receive a jail sentence.
Drivers under 18 are prohibited from all cell phone use while driving, with the exception of calling the police or fire department in an emergency. Teens who violate this law can be fined or lose their license.
Teen Drivers in Colorado
Colorado offers several paths for teens wishing to obtain a driver's license. The steps vary depending on when a young driver begins the process, which is confusing enough that CDOT offers an interactive tool and a chart to guide teens and parents through it. In short, teens can get a license at age 16, but before they apply, they'll need to have had a driving permit for twelve full months.
Teens who begin the process before they reach 16 must complete a certain number of hours of driver's education courses before obtaining a permit. Those who begin at 16 or older can apply for a permit without taking the courses, although the education is still recommended. In all cases, teens with permits must log 50 hours of driving time before applying for a license. The number of hours of behind-the-wheel training required during this phase depends on the age of the would-be driver.
The Division of Motor Vehicles, which issues licenses, provides more information, including how new drivers 18 and older can apply for a license.
Certain restrictions are placed on teen drivers, including a prohibition on driving between midnight and 5 a.m. for one year, and a limit on how many passengers can ride in the car.
If you're reading this section with trepidation as the parent of a teen who has recently received a permit or license, you might be glad to know that modern technology offers various ways to monitor teenage drivers when you can't be on the road with them. And CDOT offers a Teen/Parent Driving Contract which, they say, can help prevent crashes.