The Fourth of July weekend is expected to boost travel numbers to the highest they've been since the COVID-19 pandemic began last year.
The American Automobile Association estimates 37.1 million Americans plan to travel during the holiday weekend and about 93% of those holiday travelers will do so by automobile. With most of the travel forecast to be on roads, Utah Highway Patrol troopers joined neighboring states for a unified message to drivers: Wear your seat belt.
"Seat belts are absolutely critical, probably the single most critical thing all of us can be doing to make sure that if something bad happens on the roadway, something unexpected and we find ourselves in a collision, the likelihood of being able to survive that collision goes up dramatically when we have our seat belts on," said UHP Col. Michael Rapich.
UHP officials on Thursday joined law enforcement agencies in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming in promoting seat belt usage this weekend.
Their message comes as the first half of this year has been particularly deadly on Utah roads. Data collected by Zero Fatalities shows there have been 151 deaths on Utah roads entering Thursday, which is a 30% increase from 116 at the same point last year. The total number of crashes, which is 29,158, is also up from 22,545 crashes entering July 1 last year.
Despite a decline of cars on Utah roads in 2020, last year was the deadliest year since 2016. If there are as many fatalities in the second half of 2021 as the first half, then 2021 will be the deadliest year on Utah roads since 2003.
The spike over the past 1 1/2 years comes as the number of fatal crashes had steadily dropped from the 2000s. UHP officials say public awareness campaigns helped increase the percentage of drivers and passengers who wear seat belts, which is a key reason for the decline. They estimate the percentage of people who don't buckle up is currently about 9.8% based on crash, ticket and survey data.
That's good but not completely what law enforcement officials want to see. That's because the number of people who wear seat belts are still disproportionately represented in fatal crash statistics.
"The horrible part of it is that 10% who choose not to wear their seat belts are involved in close to 50% of fatal crashes that occur on the roadway," Rapich said. "That is a statistic that's constant and you can't get away from that. ... That's significant."
The timing of the seat belt message isn't a mistake, either. Rapich pointed out that the July 4 holiday is normally one of the deadliest on Utah roads annually as it is in the middle of the "100 Deadliest Days" on Utah roads. He added that Utah joined other states in promoting the seat belt message because half of the out-of-state residents who have died in Utah crashes over the past four years also didn't wear a seat belt.
"To say wearing (a seat belt) is a no-brainer is probably the biggest understatement we can talk about in traffic safety," Rapich added. "It is simple, it is easy to do. It takes two seconds to do that. ... It's just good, solid, conscious driving behavior."
UDOT: Expect 'heavy traffic' in these areas
Utah Department of Transportation officials say delays up to 30 minutes are expected in areas of Utah, especially on Friday and Monday when people travel during the holiday weekend.
The longest delays — up to 30 minutes — are expected on northbound I-15 through Davis County Friday afternoon into Friday evening. UDOT engineers also anticipate delays up to 20 minutes on southbound I-15 in Salt Lake County about the same time frame Friday. They expect delays up to 10 minutes in reverse directions for both counties Monday afternoon.
Officials said Wednesday that most UDOT projects will be suspended during the holiday weekend to allow all possible lanes to reopen; however, there will still be some lane closures or work zones to be aware of. Those are:
- I-15 in Clearfield: All lanes of the freeway will remain open but lane splits are in place in both directions in the area due to a project involving the median. The speed limit is 60 mph in the work zone.
- I-84 near Morgan: The freeway is reduced to one lane in both directions between exit 102 in Morgan and exit 112 in Henefer through July due to pavement and bridge maintenance.
- State Route 39 in Ogden Canyon: The highway is reduced to one lane with alternating traffic controlled by a temporary signal in the canyon. The department urges drivers to be prepared for at least 15-minute delays traveling between the Ogden Valley and places like Pineview Reservoir, Eden and Huntsville.
- State Route 276 at Lake Powell: The Lake Powell ferry that connects S.R. 276 from Bullfrog to Hall's Crossing remains closed due to low water levels. UDOT says drivers must take state Route 95 instead.
Long delays are also expected on U.S. 6 in Spanish Fork Canyon, U.S. 191 near Moab and state Route 9 near Zion National Park due to people traveling to popular recreation sites in Utah.
In addition to UHP's message about seat belts, the agency also encourages drivers to be alert, put away anything that may distract them while they drive and take breaks to avoid drowsy driving.