OGDEN — Despite significantly lower traffic volumes and fewer crashes, fatalities on Utah’s roads to this point of the year are higher than they’ve been in three years.

There have been 86 road fatalities in Utah so far in 2020, according to statistics released Thursday by the Utah Department of Transportation and Utah Highway Patrol. The last time Utah had more fatalities between Jan. 1 and May 21 was 2017 — a fact UDOT spokesman John Gleason calls “alarming,” considering total traffic volume across the state is down about 50% from last year due to COVID-19 social distancing measures.

“Quite frankly, it’s shocking news,” Gleason said. “Because over the course of the last two months, we’ve seen a major reduction of traffic on our roads.”

UHP Sgt. Nick Street added another startling statistic: The total number of vehicle crashes in Utah is down 50% from last year.

With summer approaching, Gleason and Street said the number of cars on the road is expected to increase, and UDOT and UHP are warning drivers to use caution and stay safe. Historically, the period between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day is considered the deadliest time on Utah roads, Gleason said, when fatal crashes nearly double compared to the rest of the year.

During last year’s “100 deadliest days” of summer, there were 41 fewer fatalities on Utah roads than in 2018, a 40% decrease. Gleason said while last summer’s decrease was encouraging, this year’s trend needs to be reversed.

“Obviously, this year’s numbers are not what we want to see,” Gleason said. “One fatality is too many.”

While UDOT and UHP continue to pore over the early data, there is some speculation as to why fatalities have increased despite plummeting traffic and crash levels.

“One of the theories is, there is a lot more room on our roads and people kind of think they have free rein,” Gleason said. “People are getting more casual, taking more risks.”

Street said speeding is a major factor. Since the beginning of the year, UHP has issued 1,751 speeding citations to motorists driving more than 100 mph. During the same time period in 2019, 1,337 such citations were issued. In 2018, 1,400 100 mph-plus speeding tickets were handed out.

“With these open roads with less traffic, people are getting a little bit of a lead foot,” Street said.

While speeding appears to be the main culprit in this year’s fatalities, Street said distracted driving, impaired driving and people not buckling up are also contributing factors.

Gleason and Street said drivers should use common sense practices to stay safe on Utah roads. Following speed limits and other roadway rules, refraining from tailgating, buckling up, never driving while impaired and simply paying attention will save lives, the pair said.

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