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Opinion: Throw the book at freeway speeders

Utah’s relationship with speed limits is complicated, but the number of people going 100 mph or more is clearly out of line

Utah Highway Patrol troopers enforce the speed limit in a construction zone on I-80.
Utah Highway Patrol troopers enforce the speed limit in a construction zone on I-80 near 1700 East in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 24, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

My, how things change with time.

Four years ago, Utah lawmakers were buzzing about the perceived need to crack down on local police departments who imposed ticket quotas on their officers.

One former officer in South Jordan said he had to write at least 65 tickets a month. What that meant, he said, was that, “Every time I started my car in the morning at least three people … were going to get a ticket, period, the end.”

The reactions of people in committee hearings was palpable. Boo to those who lie in wait to nab people going a little too fast. The bill passed.

Today, a lot of Utahns may wish police had quotas for catching speeders.

For those of us who are, shall we say, more mature and have seen a few more things, and who like to keep it close to the speed limit, these people are literally driving us crazy. They’re also putting lives at risk.

On a recent drive into Utah County, I lost count of the cars passing me as I lumbered along at 80 mph, 10 over the speed limit. A 50 mph construction zone didn’t seem to faze anyone. Cones and barriers were like obstacles in an arcade game. You could almost hear the points piling up as people zipped around them.

Call it the Corona lead foot. All across the land, police are clocking people at excessive speeds. It started when the economy locked down nearly two years ago. People thought that was a natural result of reduced traffic on highways. More open pavement equals more opportunities to speed.

But when the traffic returned, people kept going fast.

I’ve written about this before, each time presenting statistics that seem to keep getting grimmer. In December, the Utah Highway Patrol said it had, year to date, issued 4,500 tickets for speeds in excess of 100 mph, which was about 1,000 more than two years ago at that time. The good news is it was down slightly from 2020. The bad news is it’s still way too high, and I can attest that many more citations could be written.

More importantly, fatalities are up. UHP says 320 people died on Utah roads last year, a 15.9% increase over 2020. Of the fatalities in 2021, 81 were related to speed.

One statistic — fatalities per vehicle miles traveled — may be the most telling. It had been on a steady downward trend for decades, despite a steady increase in population and traffic. But in 2021 it was 0.94 per 100 million miles traveled, compared to 0.75 in 2019.

Maybe UHP troopers need quotas.

Now, the mood on Capitol Hill seems to have shifted. State Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, has filed a bill that would make driving over 100 mph qualify as reckless driving. The same would go for any speeding ticket in excess of 25 mph over any posted speed limit.

Reckless driving is a class B misdemeanor. This would be what is meant by throwing the book at someone. Among other things, the person would have his or her license suspended for 60 days for a first offense and 90 days for a second ticket within three years.

In a representative government, it’s natural for lawmakers to change moods along with the public. But speeding is a subject particularly susceptible to moods.

Eight years ago, the subject was cities padding their budgets on the backs of drivers. The tiny town on Mantua, in Box Elder County, was under fire for lying in wait as people passed by along Highway 89. The 60 mph speed limit there was just too low, people said. The city, with only a few hundred residents, had brought in nearly a quarter million dollars in fines the year previous.

That also was the year Utah decided to raise the speed limit to 70 mph on urban freeways and 80 mph in rural areas. Officials for the Utah Department of Transportation told me at the time that highways were designed to accommodate those speeds safely. The thing that tends to cause accidents, they said, is variable speed — when some people go a lot faster than others on the same road — which is what we have today.

The most effective answer might be to do what some other states have done — post cameras that automatically catch speeders. It’s called photocop, and Utah lawmakers rejected that idea more than 20 years ago.

That kind of nanny-state solution seemed so impersonal at the time, so oblivious to the circumstances that might explain why you simply had to go faster at a particular moment. We want to have a chance to explain to an officer, not simply get a cold and impersonal citation in the mail.

But within reason, or course.

Our relationship with speeding, then, could be described as complicated. We’ve all done it, to a degree. Our feelings about it tend to slide along a pendulum.

But when people step out of line and pass me at more than 100 mph? Well, it’s even more aggravating than padding the local budget with tickets. If it isn’t reckless, what is?

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said the 2018 bill to outlaw quotas failed.