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Utah roads more dangerous in 2020, despite a drop in traffic

FILE Cars travel north and south along I-15 in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. Annie Barker, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The global pandemic from COVID-19 has left a terrible impact on Utah, and not just regarding public health and the economy.  State officials say Utahns are becoming much more dangerous on the roads.  Representatives from UDOT and UHP say fatalities jumped last year, even though the amount of traffic has gone way down.  

During the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, police officers and UHP troopers had to maintain COVID-19 safety precautions, just like the rest of us. 

“We didn’t do a lot of our big enforcement efforts on holiday weekends and organized DUI blitzes, and things like that we try to do on a regular basis to keep emphasis on these issues,” says UHP Colonel Michael Rapich.

However, UHP officials say that only lasted for a short time, and DUI blitzes are back on.  In fact, one is planned for St. Patrick’s Day Weekend.

Safety officials say the trends they saw over the 2020 calendar year are truly unsettling.   According to Rapich, there were 276 deaths on Utah roads in 2020, which accounts for an 11% jump despite the fact that there was a 13% decrease in the number of cars on the roads..  He says DUI arrests went up, DUI fatalities went up and the number of tickets for people driving over 100 miles an hour skyrocketed

(I-215 West by the 4100 South overpass. Credit: Paul Nelson)

“In 2020, we issued 5,139 citations for speed over 100 miles an hour.  An incredible increase, 45%,” he said.

Also, Rapich says the number of pursuits spiked by roughly 50%.  Plus, there was an increase in the number of wrong-way fatalities.

He says, “In 2020, we had 15 wrong-way related fatal crashes as compared the previous two years when we had 11.”

The problem, according to UDOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras, is bad decisions being made by Utah drivers, even though we all seem to believe we care deeply about road safety.  Braceras says 82% of people they polled say they care about keeping safe on the freeways, with the majority claiming they cared more about road safety than their friends.

He said, “We place ourselves on this high level, this high pedestal of how much we care, but, when you look at the truth and you start to ask questions about some of [our] behavior, [we’re] engaged in those dangerous behaviors, as well.”

Braceras says we keep doing the things we’re told not to.

“When we get to a stoplight, I know you all have seen this, people pick up their phones and they get a quick opportunity to catch up on their texting or their emails.”

Plus, things are not looking good for 2021.  By March 11, 46 people had died on Utah roads which is roughly the same we saw last year, and not enough of us are making good decisions when we’re traveling.

“Year over year, if you take away the pedestrian fatalities, the motorcycle fatalities and the bicycle fatalities, if you take those out of the total, year over year, 50% of all fatalities are made up of people choosing not to wear seatbelts.”

Our Lies Are Costing Lives

Utah Highway Patrol and UDOT are joining together to launch a new campaign designed to keep people focused on the roads.  It’s called “Our Lies Are Costing Lives,” and Braceras says it urges everyone to consider the small, potentially dangerous choices they make while they’re behind the wheel.

“Today, we’re calling on all Utahns to stop justifying bad behaviors and to start making just one small change to save lives.  That change is going to be different for everyone,” Braceras says.

Join us live as the Utah Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Safety launch a new campaign to combat the rising number of fatalities despite fewer vehicles on the road.

Posted by Utah DOT on Monday, March 15, 2021

Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson says even if the roads don’t look busy, that doesn’t mean the rules don’t apply.

“It’s not a reason to speed.  It’s not a reason to go excessive speeds and be aggressive,” he says.

Anderson is not sure why more people seem to be making intentionally dangerous decisions like driving more than 100 miles an hour or leading police on chases.  However, it’s something they’re trying to figure out.

“It’s something we’re still looking into.  We truly do not know why, all of the sudden, this mentality of, ‘Hey, I could just run away.  If I don’t stop, the cops will stop chasing me,’ [happened],” says Anderson.