Taylorsville • While the number of deaths on Utah highways was down by 8 percent in 2011, officials launched a manhunt Thursday to stop the culprits they blame for a third of those deaths.
They are on the lookout for adult males, ages 25 to 69, the group they say is most likely not to use seat belts. Officials say many have confessed to feeling they are too tough to belt up, boast their driving is too good to need it, and believe seat belts infringe on their feelings of being "king of the cab."
"The number of [fatal] crashes related to seat belt usage â¦ is staggering," said Utah Department of Transportation Executive Director John Njord. "The good news about our state is that 89 percent of our citizens use seat belts." The other 11 percent account for about a third of all fatalities.
"The majority are men," said Utah Highway Patrol Col. Daniel Fuhr. So UDOT and the Highway Patrol are launching an education and public announcement campaign targeting them. Officials brought in the daughter of one victim to a news conference on Thursday to make an appeal to those who don't wear seat belts.
Ashli Hendricks, whose father was not buckled up when he died 10 years ago, said that clicking on a seat belt "is a simple thing that takes two seconds, but it's going to save your whole family from having to go through what I did."
She said her dad "wasn't there on my first day of junior high or high school, for my graduation, for my first boyfriend â¦ or for my wedding. Every little girl's dream is to have her daddy walk her down the aisle." A video of her story is available at ZeroFatalities.com, and she will be featured in ads.
Officials launched that campaign as they released preliminary data about traffic fatalities in 2011.
"We had 233 fatalities on our highways this last year, the lowest number we've had since 1974. That's the good part of the story. The bad part of the story is we still had 233 individuals lose their lives," Njord said. "Even one fatality is one fatality too many."
The 233 deaths in 2011 were down 8 percent from the 253 who died in 2010. It is also down by 37 percent since 2000, when 373 were killed.
The 2011 total was the lowest in the state since 228 were killed in 1974. That number, 37 years ago, was itself unusually low there were 361 deaths in 1973 and 274 in 1975.
Utah roads have become much safer through the years considering increases in population and miles driven. Still even with lower numbers, Fuhr said, "The tragedy is that most of those deaths could have been prevented. â¦ Our goal for 2012 is that nobody dies."
Njord said a good start toward that is for everyone to encourage each other to use seat belts. "Folks that buckle up are six times more likely to survive a crash that may have ben fatal. I like those odds."
UDOT said two behaviors contributing to deadly crashes have dropped since 2006, when it began its Zero Fatalities campaign: fatigue-related fatalities dropped by 30 percent and distracted-driving related deaths dropped by 28 percent.
However, it said that impaired driving-related fatalities nearly doubled between 2006 and 2011.
Among leading causes for deadly crashes in 2011, UDOT said 72 deaths were related to improper restraint, 57 were speed-related and 37 were related to driving under the influence.
Fuhr said the Highway Patrol flooded the roads on holiday weekends last year, and said that helped reduce holiday deaths. He noted that Thanksgiving weekend is usually the deadliest of the year, but Utah had no highway deaths that weekend. However, four deaths each occurred on New Year's and Independence Day holidays.
Rep. Tim Cosgrove, D-Murray, spoke after the UDOT/UHP press conference to The Tribune complaining that Highway Patrol staffing "is the same today that it was in 1980."
He said he will call for an increase to put more troopers on the road, adding, "We all drive safer when there is more law enforcement out there."
Road deaths drop
Number of Utah fatalities in recent years:
2007 • 299
2008 • 276
2009 • 244
2010 • 253
2011 • 233