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Utah Highway Patrol vehicles are pictured on I-15 in Utah County on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Deadly weekend of wrong-way crashes prompts plea from Utah troopers

SHARE Deadly weekend of wrong-way crashes prompts plea from Utah troopers
SHARE Deadly weekend of wrong-way crashes prompts plea from Utah troopers

The public has seen the pictures online or on TV of the aftermath of fatal crashes caused by wrong-way drivers. But Utah Highway Patrol Maj. Jeff Nigbur says that only tells part of the story of how "brutal" those crashes can be.

"I still can't get out of my head the smells that were on scene of the radiator fluid and the gas and the blood," he said.

Nigbur was one of the emergency responders to a crash on I-15 in Davis County on Feb. 20 caused by a driver going the wrong way, which resulted in the death of a motorcyclist. He said the impact from the collisions sent debris more than 100 yards off the freeway.

"I can't tell you how impactful these crashes are," he said.

Over the weekend, there were four more crashes on Utah's roads involving drivers going the wrong way, resulting in the deaths of three people.

  • Saturday, about 4:50 a.m., a Ford Focus got onto I-15 heading north using the 600 South off-ramp, according to the UHP. Two minutes later, the vehicle collided head-on with a FJ Cruiser near 900 South, killing both drivers. Conner Van Skyhawk, 29, of Salt Lake City, who was the driver of the Focus, and Martin Salazar of Taylorsville, 59, who was driving the Cruiser, were killed. Impairment on the part of Skyhawk was being investigated as a possible factor.
  • Several hours later, about 5:30 p.m., a Dodge Journey on state Route 6 crossed over the center line and hit an oncoming semitruck head-on, according to the UHP. The Dodge then hit a second vehicle before hitting a concrete barrier and coming to a stop. Two people in the Dodge were taken to the hospital, one with life-threatening injuries, the UHP stated.
  • Also on Saturday, about 11:15 p.m., a Kia Rio went into oncoming traffic and collided with Volkswagen Golf on the Mountain View Corridor near 6855 South. The driver of the Kia, a 29-year-old man, was pronounced dead at the scene. A 53-year-old man driving the other car was taken to a local hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening. The investigation into why the Kia was headed the wrong way remained ongoing Monday.
  • On Sunday, about 11:45 p.m., a wrong-way driver hit another car on West Temple near 3000 South, causing minor injuries to both drivers, according to South Salt Lake police. A 40-year-old woman was arrested for investigation of DUI after being treated at a local hospital.

While the majority of incidents involving wrong-way drivers are quickly resolved — such as when a driver is momentarily confused, but quickly corrects their mistake and turns around — Nigbur said the "vast majority" of fatal crashes involving wrong-way drivers involve people who are "significantly intoxicated."

"They don't know which direction they're going. They don't see the 'Wrong Way' signs and they have no idea. They're oblivious to the safety of everybody else and the risk that they're causing everybody else," he said.

Nigbur and Utah Department of Transportation spokesman John Gleason addressed the media Monday, following the extremely concerning weekend of wrong-way crashes.

As of Monday, there had been 43 crashes involving wrong-way drivers on Utah's roads this year, resulting in seven deaths, according to Nigbur. He said the seven fatalities are significant, noting that there were 19 people killed in wrong-way crashes in all of 2021, 25 in 2020 and 13 in 2019.

There were 313 wrong-way crashes in Utah in 2019, 340 in 2020 and 300 in 2021. Nigbur said there have been 58 wrong-way "occurrences" from the start of the year through Monday, compared to 39 during the same time period last year. An "occurrence" can be any report of a wrong-way driver received by emergency dispatchers. Sometimes the driver corrects the wrong behavior before troopers can find them, he said. Other times, it leads to a crash.

As for why drivers are going the wrong way, Nigbur said in cases that end in a serious crash, many times it's due to intoxication.

"A lot of the time they are absolutely oblivious to what's going on on the freeway or whatever road it is, and sometimes they just don't remember. We get that quite a bit, 'I don't remember what happened. I was involved in a crash, I woke up out of surgery and here we are today,'" he said.

Both Nigbur and Gleason say the locations where wrong-way crashes are occurring are very random and there hasn't been one on-ramp or off-ramp that drivers have been using the wrong way more than others.

According to Gleason, UDOT has signs that "go above and beyond," warning drivers they are about to enter the freeway going the wrong way, many of them stating "Do Not Enter" or "Wrong Way." UDOT also has 35 cameras statewide dedicated to spotting wrong-way drivers, he said.

Once a wrong-way driver is detected, Nigbur said troopers are trained on several ways to interdict. Sometimes traffic on the freeway is slowed down while another trooper also drives the wrong way and attempts to catch up with the wayward driver and then perform a maneuver to force their car to turn sideways and stop. But other times, a trooper will put their own life at risk by purposely hitting a wrong-way driver head-on.

Trooper Devin Henson is still recovering from injuries sustained while stopping a wrong-way driver in February. But for the most part, Nigbur said, "we've been really, really lucky" in terms of troopers not sustaining major injuries due to wrong-way drivers.

UDOT and the UHP are now creating a task force that will deal specifically with wrong-way crashes and keep data on wrong-way incidents. Until then, Nigbur and Gleason said the public needs to follow the basic rule of not drinking and driving.

"What this really comes down to is, we have to make better decisions behind the wheel when we're drinking and we're taking either illicit drugs or prescription drugs. Again, it's not illegal to drink in the state of Utah. But we can't get behind the wheel when we're intoxicated because things like this happen and families lose family members," Nigbur said.