Utahns drove less in 2020 yet more died in accidents — though not on highways

State officials are asking Utah motorists drivers to pick one of five areas where they can improve their driving.

(Photo courtesy of UHP) According to the Utah High Patrol, it handled fewer traffic fatalities in 2020 than in 2019, although the number of traffic deaths in Utah rose.

Utahns drove fewer miles and died in greater numbers on state roads in 2020 — but most of that unexpected divergence was not the result of people driving at extreme speeds on the state’s highways.

The number of cars on the roads decreased 13% from 2019 to 2020, according to preliminary figures from the Utah Department of Transportation, while the number of fatalities rose 13% to 276. But the number of highway fatalities fell.

“UHP saw a 10% decrease in fatalities that we handle,” said spokesman Lt. Nick Street — declining from 130 in 2019 to 117 in 2020.

UDOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras said there’s no one reason for the increase in traffic deaths. “There were so many changes that occurred last year with the pandemic,” he said, “it’s hard to isolate the single cause.” Although drivers exceeding 100 mph on highways and “aggressive driving” in general contributed, he said.

“But the change in fatalities was actually more dramatic on the slower-speed roads than the higher-speed roads,” Braceras said. “From a percentage basis, when you look at the number of drivers, highways remain the safest roads.”

The number of traffic fatalities on surface streets rose from 101 in 2019 to 159 in 2020 — an increase of 36%. And many of those accidents were the result of careless drivers.

According to research, “Everyone thinks they’re the safest person on the road,” Braceras said. “In fact, Utahns believe they care more about highway safety than even law enforcement.” And that “allows us to lie to ourselves and allows us to maybe do some small things that are not safe.”

That’s the thinking behind a new public service announcement from safety advocacy group Zero Fatalities, one that Braceras acknowledged is more “in your face” than most. It features a variety of voices making excuses for speeding, driving while high, texting, not wearing seatbelts and more — leading to the tagline, “Our lies are costing lives.”

Braceras said that 94% of crashes across the country can be tied to one or more of five bad behaviors, and he suggested every driver should choose at least one those areas to improve:

1. Drive focused.

2. Drive calm.

3. Drive alert.

4. Driver sober.

5. Wear seatbelts.

“We’re trying to help people understand that the choices they make can lead to safer roads,” he said. “And so we’re asking people to make one small change in behavior to be a safer driver.”

And he advised staying off your phone for calls, texts and emails.

“You don’t need to respond to that e-mail right away, even if it’s from your boss,” Braceras said. “Even if it’s from my boss, the governor, I’m not going to respond to that text message while driving.”