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Traffic fatalities are down, but push is on to hit zero

SALT LAKE CITY — The number of people killed in traffic accidents in the U.S. and Utah is at the lowest levels in decades. But tens of thousands of people continue to die on roads across the country, and the push is on to do something about it.

A report released this week by the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed highway deaths fell in 2011 to their lowest level since 1949 at 32,367.

In Utah, the number of people killed on state roads dropped 5.1 percent to 240 from 2010 to 2011, according to national statistics. The Utah Department of Public Safety's number is three more for 2011, 243 deaths, the state's lowest level since 1974.

Through the first two weeks of December this year, Utah had 196 traffic fatalities, according to DPS. Utah Department of Public Safety spokesman Dwayne Baird said at the current rate, Utah could have its lowest number of fatalities since 1959 when there were 205.

But highway safety officials said even one death is too many. And with the busy holiday travel season coming up, officials are issuing warnings on driving under the influence, distracted driving and driving while drowsy.

Thursday afternoon, a child was was killed and two people were injured in a head-on crash about 15 miles west of Vernal.

The crash happened about 4:45 p.m. on U.S. 40 near the junction with state Route 88. The Utah Highway Patrol said Angela Davis, 34, of Roosevelt, was driving east in a red Honda Civic when she crossed into the oncoming lane and hit another Honda Civic head-on.

The impact of the crash tore the red car in half, ejecting Davis and 12-year-old TJ Seely from the car, troopers said. The car's front half and its back half landed about 150 feet from each other.

Seely, of Roosevelt, died at the scene. His body, draped with a sheet, lay near a pair of red tennis shoes about 20 feet away from where the front half of the car had come to rest.

Davis was transported by ambulance to Ashley Regional Medical Center in critical condition and then flown by medical helicopter to a hospital in Salt Lake City, troopers said.

The driver of the other car, 51-year-old Blair Kay of Mona, was also transported to Ashley Regional with minor injuries, according to UHP.

Troopers say Davis' car may have experienced a flat tire, leading to the crash, but they are still trying to determine exactly what happened. They do not believe speed or impairment contributed to the crash.

Troopers expect to return to the scene Friday to continue their investigation.

At downtown Salt Lake City's Gateway on Thursday, law enforcers from several jurisdictions joined together to remind motorists to "drive sober or get pulled over." The Utah Highway Patrol counted 39 alcohol-related traffic deaths in 2011 compared with 25 in 2010. The NHTSA report tabulated 53 in its report, however, for 2011, up from 46.

Baird was unsure of the reason for the discrepancies in numbers but believed it was because each report was tabulated using different sources.

To kickoff their annual don't-drink-and-drive campaign, local law enforcers used 8-foot tall snowmen — some that appeared to have been hit by a car — to simulate a drunken driving accident scene.

"Our goal is for zero. We want every single day to be a day free of a person who dies from a drunk driver … a weekend free," said UHP Col. Daniel Fuhr. "We see it differently than just a snowman. We see it as actual people we've seen in our minds that are not breathing anymore that should be breathing, and that's traumatic for us."

Nationally, vans and pickups showed the greatest decrease in being involved in fatal drunken driving accidents, while motorcycles were involved in 8.6 percent more fatal drunken driving crashes from 2010 to 2011, according to the NHTSA report.

In fatal accidents not involving alcohol, motorcycles were involved in slightly fewer accidents than the year before. But there was a 15 percent increase nationwide of "large trucks" involved in fatal accidents nationwide during the same time period, according to the report.

According to statistics from the Utah Department of Public Safety, it's not only fatalities that are going down, but the total number of crashes and the average death rate per vehicle miles traveled. Utah recorded more than 49,300 crashes in 2010 compared to 51,300 in 2009 and 56,300 in 2008.

Baird attributes the state's declining accident and fatality rate to several factors. One is better roads for motorists. The second is education campaigns encouraging motorists to wear their seatbelts and to not drive drunk or drowsy. The third is increased enforcement on the roads, he said.

In 2011, people between the ages of 15 and 34 accounted for 39 percent of the total people killed in crashes in Utah. Speed was a factor in 41 percent of the the total fatal crashes in Utah in 2011, according to DPS statistics. Bad weather and drunken driving each accounted for 15 percent of fatal accidents in 2011. Crashes were more frequent in the summer and fall months, according to state statistics.

Crashes were more frequent in urban areas in 2010, but fatal crashes were more likely to happen in rural areas, according to DPS. A driver or passenger was also more than five times more likely to be killed in an accident involving the vehicle rolling.

In 2011, 48 percent of fatal traffic accident victims, or 82 people, were not wearing a seat belt. In 2010, people not buckled up were 31 more times likely to die in an accident than those wearing seat belts in Utah, according to state statistics. Baird noted that of the seven people killed in accidents that happened in the two weeks after Thanksgiving in Utah this year, six of those people would likely still be alive if they had been wearing a seat belt.

Contributing: Geoff Liesik

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