Alcohol-involved deaths on roads doubled during COVID year

An uptick in road fatalities in the state mirrors national pandemic trends.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Traffic on 400 South in Salt Lake City is photographed on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. Almost twice as many people died in alcohol-involved crashes on Utah roads in 2020 as they did in 2019, according to data from the Utah Department of Transportation.

Pandemic lockdowns may have led to less commuter traffic, but they didn’t lead to safer roads.

Almost twice as many people died in alcohol-involved crashes on Utah roads in 2020 as they did in 2019, according to data from the Utah Department of Transportation. There were 32 fatal crashes involving alcohol in 2019 and 61 in 2020.

Those deaths are part of a larger picture of increased traffic fatalities over the past year — there was an 11% increase in Utah fatalities from 2019 to 2020. Utah’s uptick in deaths mirrors national trends. A fact sheet from the United States Department of Transportation shows there has been a 7% increase in traffic fatalities nationally. Speed-related deaths increased 24% in Utah and 11% throughout the country. There was a 9% increase nationally in alcohol-involved fatalities.

Robert Miles, UDOT’s director of traffic and safety, said it’s too soon to know for sure why fatal crashes went up. He said the pattern has surprised everyone, including traffic experts.

“I think ... most people thought if there is less traffic on the street there will be fewer fatalities, there will be fewer crashes,” he said. “We saw fewer crashes, but we saw more fatal crashes.”

Miles said it is possible that people began taking more risks while driving. The extra road space created by reduced traffic may have caused people to think they could drive faster or be less attentive, he said.

Not every type of fatal crash increased. Fatalities involving large trucks went down in Utah by 18%, and throughout the country by 2%. Miles said people who operate heavy trucks receive a lot of training, and are judged on the safety of their driving. This may have prevented them from engaging in unsafe driving behavior.

Fatalities involving out-of-state-residents decreased 54% between 2019 and 2020. Miles said this could be because less travel during the pandemic meant fewer non-Utahns driving here.

Unfortunately, the uptick in driving deaths has continued into 2021.

There were 122 fatalities in Utah as of June 9, according to UDOT. In 2020, there were 97 fatalities in the same time frame, and there were 93 in 2019. Miles said much of the 2020 increase in Utah road deaths occurred later in the year, after COVID became a big problem locally. The same trend is seen in the national numbers, where 2020 fatalities begin to increase in June. Miles said he hopes the pattern of increased traffic deaths will end as the world begins to go back to normal.

(Tribune graph by Sara Tabin using UDOT data) Traffic deaths between January 1 and June 9 by year over the past decade.

How soon deaths decrease will depend heavily on drivers’ behavior, according to Miles.

“These things don’t have to happen ... I would like people to know that,” Miles said. “We don’t want to use the word ‘accident,’ because these things don’t have to happen, they’re not fated to happen.”

Miles said everyone has a role to play in protecting lives on the road. Drivers can choose not to speed or drink and drive. Passengers can choose to wear seat belts and avoid distracting drivers. Bikers can wear helmets, and pedestrians can avoid jaywalking.

Miles pointed to lower fatality numbers in years past as evidence that things can improve.

“Our past behavior has shown us we can do better, we don’t have to lose these lives,” said Miles.