OGDEN — Despite significant declines in the number of vehicles on Utah roads this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, traffic fatalities went up nearly 70% during what is typically the 100 most dangerous days to drive.
That’s according to a new report released Wednesday by the Utah Department of Transportation, which details fatalities on Utah roads this year, from Memorial Day through Labor Day, a time period the Utah Department of Transportation calls the “100 Deadliest Days.”
Historically, the summer months are considered the deadliest time on Utah roads, according to UDOT spokesperson John Gleason, when fatal crashes nearly double compared to the rest of the year.
UDOT’s 2020 report shows that 102 people died on Utah roads during the 100 Deadliest Days this year, up from 61 fatalities during the same time frame in 2019.
“It’s generally in line with what we’ve seen before,” Gleason said. “But that’s still really a staggering number.”
Gleason said the increase from last year was startling for a number of reasons.
“First of all, last year was the most significant decrease in fatalities we’ve seen in a long, long time,” Gleason said. “So we were hoping to keep that trend going. We’ll never celebrate until we reach our goal of zero fatalities, but last year was definitely a bright spot.”
During last year’s 100 Deadliest Days of summer, there were 41 fewer fatalities on Utah roads than in 2018, a 40% decrease.
Another reason to be concerned about this year’s increase, Gleason said, is that traffic has been reduced significantly due to the pandemic. According to a report from the Wasatch Front Regional Council, statewide traffic volume fell by as much as 50% from mid-March through April and as of August was still down 10%.
“You would think that the fewer vehicles there are on the road, the fewer fatalities you’d have,” Gleason said. “But that hasn’t been the case, and we’re seeing that nationally too.”
Fatalities this year overall, beyond the deadly days of summer, are up too, according to UDOT’s report. Through Monday, Sept. 14, there have been 187 traffic-related deaths on Utah’s roads. In 2019 through Sept. 14, there were 155 fatalities, 21% fewer than this year.
Gleason said UDOT and its partners at the Utah Highway Patrol haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact reason for the increase in fatalities while overall traffic has decreased, but there are some theories.
“It could be something comparable to why we see more fatalities during the summer,” Gleason said. “In the summer, you’ve got perfect conditions, no weather to deal with or anything like that, yet there are more fatalities. One of the reasons for that is because in the winter, it’s a no-brainer. A lot of times people are white-knuckling it trying to get through a storm and are generally more careful. So when you have less congestion on the roads, less traffic to contend with, that might lull people into a false sense of security.”
Gleason said the majority of the 2020 fatal accidents were preventable. Drowsy driving, distracted driving and either the failure to wear or the improper usage of seatbelts were factors in many of the crashes. But according to the report, speeding was the biggest contributor. Excessive speeds were involved in more than 30% of the fatal crashes.
UHP Sgt. Nick Street previously told the Standard-Examiner that speeding has been on the uptick this year. According to UHP data from Labor Day weekend this year, the highway patrol issued 3,929 speeding violations from Sept. 4-7. UHP says 112 of those violators were cited for driving at speeds of more than 100 mph.
“There are a lot of things going on in the world right now that we can’t control,” Gleason said. “But speeding, distracted driving, drowsy driving, driving impaired, not wearing your seatbelt — those are all things we can control. We’re just urging people to be mindful of that and be careful on our roads.”