Aggressive driving taking a deadly toll in Colorado Springs

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In this Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018 photo, Gordon Salazar shows off a scar that runs across on his side at his home on in Colorado Springs, Colo. Salazar was stabbed in June while protecting his step sons from Pascual Lopez, who followed them home amid a road rage incident and Lopez faces a slew of charges in the stabbing. (Dougal Brownlie/The Gazette via AP)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Life hasn’t been the same, Katharine Salazar said, since her husband was stabbed three times in June by an angry man who followed their sons home after a road rage encounter.

Gordon Salazar, 47, wasn’t involved in the initial confrontation but was trying to get to the bottom of it when, alarmed and confused, he approached the driver after watching the man slam into the back of his stepson’s car outside the family’s apartment on Gahart Drive.

He didn’t see the knife the driver held when he jumped from his car, slashed Salazar twice in the stomach and once near his left armpit, severing an artery. A couple of more inches and it would have punctured his lung, a doctor told him.

The driver, Pascual Lopez, 42, remains jailed on a $25,000 bond on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon and felony menacing. He’s next scheduled to appear in court Sept. 19.

In the three months since the attack, Salazar’s wounds have mostly healed, but he hasn’t.

He refuses to talk about the stabbing and was reluctant to lift his shirt to reveal the scars he’s desperate to forget. He doesn’t want to relive the trauma, he said. But his wife doesn’t mince words when describing how the single road rage incident has altered their lives for the worse.

“He spent three years sober, then when he got stabbed it all went to s—,” Kathy Salazar said, explaining that her husband’s days are now spent sitting in his car listening to music, drinking and playing on his cellphone. They have little communication, she said, describing him as “shutoff” and their relationship as “co-existing.”

“Our life went backwards,” she said.

Road rage incidents in Colorado Springs and in Colorado are on the rise, impacting many families.

A 13-year-old boy was killed and his mother and sibling seriously injured in a June shooting after “some type of road rage incident” in Denver. The 2016 shooting death of 39-year-old Gerillermo Escobar-Torres, after what police called a possible road rage incident on Colorado 94, remains unsolved. Twenty-five-year-old Robert (Bobby) Mullikin is recovering from a torn carotid artery, brain bleed and cracked skull after being run over at the end of July by alleged road rage driver Alan Du.

Du faces charges of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon. He’s next scheduled to appear in court in mid-September.

Colorado Springs police Lt. John Koch said aggressive driving is “the number one complaint” police receive on a daily basis, and there are plenty of examples that it have turned deadly.

The city is on pace for another record-setting year in traffic deaths, with 34 fatalities reported through August, just five shy of last year’s record 39 deaths. The department could not say how many of those fatalities were attributed to aggressive driving.

Police did pull records, though, on the number of drivers caught speeding 20 mph or more over the limit, racing or driving recklessly to give a sense of the prevalence of aggressive driving in the city. It showed that officers have written more tickets for those violations through July of this year — 1,794 — than they did in any other year back to 2014. They attributed 106 crashes to aggressive driving during the January-July time frame.

Records showed offenses are most often occurring in central Colorado Springs — on or parallel to Interstate 25 — and near East Platte Avenue and Academy Boulevard.

“I don’t know if it’s Colorado drivers or if people just tend to be aggressive in general when they’re driving, but I would say that I think sometimes people just . get in too much of a rush,” Koch said.

“We all have that moment where we’re focused on ourselves . we tend to think about what we need to get done, and where we need to be and what we need to do, and that can be at the expense of aggressive driving and potentially the safety of other people on the road.”

Traffic enforcement was one of the sacrifices police made in 2016 when Chief Pete Carey cut some specialized and proactive units amid a “critical” staffing shortage, but Koch said enforcement has been ramping up since August of last year.

This summer, the department deployed a new patrol team to address primarily traffic complaints. These officers drive unmarked vehicles and prowl for aggressive drivers and other “bad driving habits” that police say are leading to the rise in fatalities, such as street racing, driving under the influence and neglecting pedestrian safety.

“Can we prevent collisions? Can we prevent fatal driving decisions and things like that with these patrols out there? Yeah, I think we can,” Koch said.

A ride on a recent Friday night with one of those patrol officers, Kyle Bergstreser, showed police have a lot of work to do.

Within a minute of pulling out of the Sand Creek substation at Academy and Fountain boulevards, Bergstreser had pulled over his first driver. Granted, the woman’s violation was for driving without a license plate, but often drivers who hide or obstruct view of their plates — especially motorcyclists — are engaging in troublesome behavior and even “baiting” officers to chase them, he said.

Thirty minutes later, he’d pulled over a second driver for similar reasons and had observed two other traffic violations, which he was prevented from addressing because he was writing tickets.

“I can only be in one place at a time,” Bergstreser said, obviously frustrated.

Then, while trying to catch one speeder driving north on Academy Boulevard, Bergstreser encountered another he estimated to be driving 10 to 15 mph over the posted speed limit and frequently swerving around other vehicles on the road — “twice without using a signal.” The vehicle also was not properly registered, and the driver was unable to provide proof of insurance.

“He’s endangering everyone else on the road,” Bergstreser said after seizing the vehicle’s license plates.

“They’re not paying attention to the fact that other people are using their blinkers and changing lanes in traffic.”

Hours later, driving north on Academy Boulevard just after midnight, Bergstreser happened upon a rollover crash at Airport Road that turned out to be a bad-driving trifecta.

A witness said the silver Altima appeared to be racing a truck east on Airport Road when it ran a red light trying to make a right turn onto Academy Boulevard and lost control. The vehicle, the witness said, “stood up on its front” before partially rolling and slamming against the curb.

The driver, speaking in Spanish, later admitted to drinking “muy poquito” (just a little) of alcohol, which he later clarified as one beer. He was taken to the hospital for minor injuries and tested for impairment.

And that’s just a snapshot of the traffic encounters Bergstreser had in a six-hour period. It’s easy to imagine those events multiplied across the city.

Various surveys have attempted to categorize Colorado driving habits but have come to conflicting conclusions, some ranking the state among the best places to drive and others the worst.

This July, data collected by the federal Fatal Analysis Reporting System led the Auto Insurance Center to rank Colorado the second worst in the nation for road rage and aggressive driving deaths. “Although these crashes represent only a small portion of fatal accidents in total, they’re all the more tragic for being entirely preventable,” the report said.

The next month, a report by insurance company Allstate ranked Colorado Springs the 20th “safest driving city in America,” beating out 180 other cities with populations over 50,000. “According to Allstate claims data,” a news release on the survey explained, “the average Colorado Springs driver will experience a traffic collision once every 10.4 years, an impressive feat considering the number of fatal collisions is on the rise.”

The Salazar family is less than encouraged by that news.

Since the stabbing, Kathy Salazar said they’ve noticed more road rage incidents while driving than ever before — drivers honking, speeding and swerving through traffic. She believes her “kids have learned not to engage anyone,” she said.

“Nothing is worth your life,” Kathy said. “Just turn your music on and ignore what people say to you. . Just keep going.”

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Information from: The Gazette, http://www.gazette.com

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