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Utahns are notoriously bad drivers — and that includes you, too

Motorists share the road with cyclists as they negotiate the S-curve in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Friday, July 17, 2020. Studies have shown that Utah drivers are some of the nation’s worst.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

I’m a Utah driver, which means I’m a terrible driver.

Statistically, you are too.

A 2016 study ranked Utahns the worst drivers in America, and we’ve been in the bottom 10 every year since. What makes us such bad drivers? It’s not the traffic. A 2017 report placed Utah well below the national average for time spent in traffic congestion. The average California driver spends 4½ times as much time in traffic as we do, and even Colorado and Arizona experience more than twice as much traffic as Utah.

It’s not the police, either. Utah ranks in the middle of the pack on speeding enforcement and reckless driving. Famously dry Utah ranks 50th out of 50 states for drunken driving — even after the new .05 blood-alcohol standard.

When I moved back to Utah a few years ago, I was amazed at some things I’ve noticed about Utahns compared to other drivers.

First, when you come to a stop light, drivers here stay in the lane they’re in. In other states, if there are six cars in the left lane and two in the right, the seventh car will change lanes so they’re third in the other lane instead. Here, we’re happy with seventh. I’ve never seen it anywhere else.

Second, drivers here leave a ridiculous amount of space from the white stop line or crosswalk. That distance often means they fail to activate the traffic light induction sensor — that big coil of wire pressed into the concrete that tells the light that cars are waiting.

Third, we seem incapable of staying in our lanes when the road curves. My family actually turned this into a game — we each pick a lane, and if the car in our lane fails to stay in the lane, you get a point. The points get high, fast, especially in Parley’s Canyon or the I-15 construction in Lehi.

Fourth, the cellphones — yikes.

A recent survey from AAA asked if people use their cellphones when driving, and 68% admitted they did. Based on my observations in Utah, that means that 32% of people are liars.

Year after year, the Utah Legislature resists a cellphone ban, yet distracted driving caused 5,700 crashes in 2016, 3,300 injuries and 27 fatalities. Distracted driving is responsible for nearly 10% of fatalities on the road in Utah, behind speed (40%), failure to wear a seat belt (30%), drunken driving (13%) and failure to yield (12%).

Put another way, distracted driving is only slightly less deadly in Utah than drunken driving.

I know that statistics aren’t the best way to make a point. But this issue has a human cost: Driving is the third biggest killer in Utah after heart disease and cancer. So why are we so stubbornly bad at it?

Part of it is probably growth — California drivers mixing with Texas drivers mixing with Utah city and rural drivers, and each one following the rules of the road that they learned.

Part of it is probably the human condition. Studies have found that 65% of Americans believe they are “smarter than average.” The same is true with driving: One study found that 88% of drivers rated themselves “above average” drivers.

Yet, somehow, there are still hundreds of deaths on Utah roads every year, and probably just as many excuses. Countless drivers have gone to their grave convinced of their superiority:

“I drive fast, but those slow drivers in the left lane are the real problem.” (40% of fatal crashes in Utah are caused by speed.)

“A seat belt would trap me if I’m in a crash, and I have air bags anyways” (30% of fatal crashes in Utah are caused by failure to wear a restraint.)

“Everyone uses their cellphone, and I only use it at the light.” (10% of fatal crashes are caused by distracted driving.)

“I’m not a bad driver, everyone else is!” (88% of us think we are “above average.”)

So, what’s the solution? The statistics and studies can’t solve this one. It’s up to all of us, with a little reminder and self-reflection, figuring it out for ourselves, one mile at a time.

All of us above-average, horrible Utah drivers.

Dio Tararrel is a writer, researcher and above-average driver who lives in Salt Lake City.