Utah Highway Patrol Col. Michael Rapich wants to make one thing clear: The alarming increase in fatal accidents and reckless driving on Utah roadways since the pandemic began is not connected with the increase in speed limits. 

It’s been more than six years since the posted limit along Wasatch Front freeways became 70 mph. You have to go back even further to when the rural limit hit 80. 

Back in ’14, I wrote a rather sarcastic column about getting on I-15, with its new posted limit, and trying to see if I could hit 70. I could not. Traffic was too bad. Except for a guy in a Beemer who was darting in and out of lanes as if he were searching for a clearing that would lead him to the checkered flag, everyone was plodding along.

But now, traffic is lighter. Thanks to the pandemic, it was 13% lighter overall in Utah last year. That must mean it’s easier to hit the limit, and beyond. 

But that doesn’t explain all the bad things, Rapich said when I asked him about it in a recent Deseret News/KSL editorial board meeting.

Are you lying to yourself? Utah officials say driver overconfidence having deadly consequences

“When we have all of the traffic basically following the rules and traveling at a consistent speed, things work really well,” he said. “When we have those that are traveling way faster than what the speed limit is, making aggressive movements and everything that facilitates that, those (fatalities) are some of the things that we see.”

Traffic engineers establish speed limits based on how fast 85% of people travel on a road, especially when they don’t see any cops around. Each road has its own natural limit, based on road design and other factors. 

But 70 is a long way from 100 or more, and 2020 saw a 45% increase in people being cited for going that fast. Those people are outliers, like the guy I saw in the Beemer in 2014. Most drivers aren’t reckless. But the outliers are growing, and most of them tend to be men between 18 and 40.

That doesn’t seem to be changing just because more people are getting vaccinated. Traffic is picking up again, but the roads aren’t getting any safer. 

To put numbers to it: In 2012, Utah saw 217 fatal accidents, which was the lowest total in real numbers in 50 years, and a considerable drop since the 373 recorded in 2000. All this happened despite a dramatic increase in population over time.

But in 2020, the state had 276 fatal crashes, which was 11% higher than in 2019, despite less traffic. By mid-March this year, the 2021 total was 47, which was roughly the same as through the end of March in 2020.

Levels of speeding and drunken driving seemed normal, then COVID-19 happened

It’s happening everywhere. The nonprofit National Safety Council estimates fatal accidents were up 8% nationwide last year. Perhaps a more telling statistic is the rate of fatalities per 100 million miles driven. That jumped by 24%, the largest one-year spike in history.

Does this mean we can add dangerous roads to the list of the “new normal” — things that permanently changed because of the pandemic? What in the name of Sgt. Joe Friday, Adam 12’s Pete Malloy and Jim Reed and all the other beloved law-enforcement figures of popular culture is going on here?

I haven’t been able to find anyone with a definitive answer. COVID-19 certainly didn’t lead us to invent road rage or reckless driving. As I’ve written before, those things probably rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line along with the first Model T. 

But, for whatever reason, the pandemic has made them far worse.

Is it stress? Have mask mandates and social distancing made some people long so much for freedom that they have to act out behind the wheel?

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Most importantly, is this an anomaly — a blip in time that will disappear as soon as life returns to whatever normal is going to be in the future?

Stay tuned. 

But if you still think the higher speed limits have something to do with it, Utah Department of Transportation Executive Director Carlos Braceras has one more fact to consider. Most of last year’s fatalities were on the arterial system, not the interstates. Half of them involved people not wearing seat belts.   

I’m thinking we can do better.

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