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Campbell: Public cares about young crash victims, so state shouldn't hide them

Published September 7, 2012 9:19 pm

Hypocritical? • State's own prevention ads feature teen accident victims.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It was evening on June 5 in Fountain Green, Sanpete County, when a Moroni driver hit and killed a 16-year-old boy who was walking away from a youth home on dimly lit highway.

It may have warranted a short news brief in the Manti paper, the Sanpete Messenger, but authorities at the Utah Highway Patrol did something they don't usually do. They issued a news release without the victim's name.

When quizzed by the Messenger's associate editor, Christian Probasco, UHP Trooper Jered Taylor said he had been told by a superior not to reveal the boy's name. The name of the driver was released. Taylor said the UHP was instituting a new policy withholding minors' names from reports and journalists statewide.

Probasco started on a long journey of appealing the decision, and by default, the new policy. The State Records Committee will hear his case next Thursday.

Now the Department of Public Safety agrees that the law says print and broadcast media can receive the "name, age, sex, and city of residence of each person involved in the accident." At the same time, public safety officials have decided that accidents involving minors aren't really news and it is "a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy" to disclose their names to the public via the media.

There are problems with the Department of Public Safety's intransigence. First, once a record is given specific "public" status in law, public officials can't make up reasons to modify that status. Second, there's plenty of public interest in cases involving accidents related to minors. Third, the UHP and Department of Public Safety are hypocritical because they themselves are using stories of minors to influence public opinion and change teen drivers' behavior.

From 1992 to 2000, traffic accident reports were readily available under the state's Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). In 2000, lawmakers said they had received constituent complaints. Accident victims said personal injury attorneys and chiropractors had been trying to take them on as clients and patients after getting their names from accident reports.

Lawmakers supported HB243, which made accident reports off limits to most people. After concern was raised by Utah news outlets, journalists were given the unsavory choice of being granted special access to accident reports or have no access at all. Journalists reluctantly accepted compromise language in the bill, as legislators recognized the need for the public to get accident information.

The Department of Public Safety suggests the facts of this case are on one hand exceptional and create an invasion of privacy and on the other there is little public interest in minors involved in accidents. In truth, information about vehicle accidents involving juvenile victims are widely reported and often become subject of intense public interest. In the aftermath of many accidents, the public vigils, the trauma experienced in schools, and stories of children and teenaged victims lead to changes in roads, signals, overpasses and traffic patterns.

Probably the best example of how the stories of minors are used to raise public awareness comes from the state itself. The Utah Highway Patrol — and UDOT-affiliated website and public service campaign, "Zero Fatalities" — uses emotional videos of those who have been killed or survived a traffic accident. TV viewers frequently see these ads on local stations.

The news story section of the "Zero Fatalities" website also features many Utah media news stories about juveniles involved in traffic accidents. It's ironic that the state wants to shut down the very information they are promoting. The media and state share goals in sharing these stories: saving lives and improving safety. It's hard to do that if you don't know the names of victims. Let's hope the State Records Committee sees through this charade.

Joel Campbell is an associate journalism professor at BYU. He writes about Freedom of Information and First Amendment issues for The Tribune. He can be contacted at foiguy@gmail.com.