SALT LAKE CITY — Even though fewer people are getting behind the wheel since the pandemic began a year ago, more people are dying in traffic accidents, state data indicates. And public safety officials are blaming Utahns’ overconfidence,
“Our lies are costing lives” is the new mantra being rolled out as part of the state’s Zero Fatalities highway safety campaign
“The truth is we need to look at our own behavior and be better drivers,” Jess Anderson, commissioner of the Utah Department of Public Safety, said. “We can no longer justify that one text, or not driving the speed limit. One decision can change everything. Let’s all start now.”
He lamented that overconfidence in one’s driving ability leads some Utahns to make excuses to justify bad behavior. The Zero Fatalities safety campaign will employ television, radio, social media and online advertising with the underlying message: “Our lies are costing lives.”
The Utah Department of Transportation reported Monday that preliminary estimates show that traffic fatalities in 2020 climbed 11% to 276. This was despite the fact the number of cars on the road fell by 13% last year.
With traffic fatalities rising, proponents of UDOT’s Zero Fatalities campaign are urging Utahns to stop justifying bad driving behaviors and make one small change immediately to save lives on the road.
“That change is going to be different for everyone,” said UDOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras. “It’s things such as not sending that one text message, or not stopping at a stoplight and looking at that one important email from your boss that you felt you needed to look at.”
He added that decisions such as distracted driving, aggressive driving — including speeding — along with drowsy driving, impaired driving by alcohol, illicit or prescription medications and not wearing seat belts all increase the risk to everyone on Utah roads.
The Beehive State is not alone in this troubling trend.
Nationally, bad behaviors contribute to 94% of all crashes, he said. To confront the problem, UDOT and the Department of Public Safety are leading the Zero Fatalities public outreach effort designed to inform and educate the public about the five most deadly driving behaviors, which include distracted driving, speeding and aggressive driving, drowsy driving, impaired driving — including prescription drugs and not wearing seat belts.
The Federal Highway Administration reported the number of miles driven on public roads reached its lowest point in nearly 20 years in 2020, while fatalities rose 8% over the previous year, according to the National Safety Council. And Utah isn’t looking much better so far this year as data showed 47 people have died on state roadways as of March 15.
This early in the year, the numbers are unexpected and cause for concern, Braceras said.
“We all agree that we want our roads to be safer. And we can do better, together,” he said. “If each of us makes one small change today like ignoring that text or buckling up, we will save lives. That change will be different for everyone, but we can all do better.”
So UDOT and the Department of Public Safety are launching the new campaign to combat the rising number of fatalities.
The campaign is based on new research that offers insight into why Utahns behave the way they do once they get behind the wheel. Braceras said the research overwhelmingly indicates Utahns do care about safety on the roads but he believes some individuals may take the task of driving a bit too cavalierly.
“We can be very easily distracted when we’re driving and it is probably the singular most dangerous activity any of us engage in in our entire life. We do it every day and we don’t think about it. We can get to zero fatalities if everyone on the roadway commits to it,” he said. “Everyone makes mistakes, so we have to be aware of those other people on the roadway that might make a mistake unintentionally so that we can react to it because, at the end of the day, we want everyone to go home safe and sound.”
While the coronavirus pandemic may have reduced the volume of traffic on the highway, the amount of reckless driving on Utah roadways saw a significant spike, officials said.
“Even though we see fewer vehicles on the road, we have seen a sharp increase in some of those (bad) behaviors,” Anderson said. “For instance, our 100 miles per hour citations last year in 2020 were up 45% over the previous two years. Wrong-way crashes — meaning wrong-way drivers — were up 15%, while (driving under the influence) arrests were up nearly 10% from the previous year.”
He added that the number of drivers who choose not to stop for a police officer resulting in a chase jumped 50% over the previous year.
“Those are alarming statistics,” Anderson said. “We are calling upon all people today to make better decisions, better choices. Be aware, be self-aware and understanding of those around you. Be cautious, be careful, slow down and take your time to get to your destination safely.
“Understand that the decisions you make, whether it’s to go out and drink an alcoholic beverage, we would ask you to be wise with that decision of not driving after that effort. With all of this, we can make a pledge to do better.”