Taylorsville • Utah roads were less deadly last year than they have been in decades, thanks to more people buckling up and fewer motorists drinking and driving — perhaps because they thought Utah’s new toughest-in-the-nation drunken driving law took effect earlier than it really did.

Utah’s death rate per million miles traveled in 2018 was 0.80. The lowest ever measured was 0.81 in 2013 — when highways deaths had been the lowest in a half century, said Jason Davis, deputy director of the Utah Department of Transportation.

In comparison, the national highway death rate in 2017, the most recent year with available data, was 1.16 — 45 percent higher than in Utah last year.

“We’ve got more people out there on our roadways than we ever have before” because of population growth, Davis said. “Yet we continue to have a decrease in the number of fatalities."

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Last year, 264 people died on Utah highways — down from 273 in 2017.

“That’s still way too many,” said Utah Highway Patrol Col. Michael Rapich. “That’s 264 times” that law officers “had to go to someone’s house, and had to explain to a family that something really horrible happened, and because of that a loved one was not coming home.”

Davis said one reason deaths were down is that more people are buckling up. Deaths of unbuckled drivers and passengers dropped from 86 in 2017 to 50 last year.

“People are obviously buckling up because we had more crashes than ever, yet the number of people that were involved in a fatality dropped,” Davis said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Department of Transportation Deputy Director Jason Davis talks to the media about the data for 2018 highway fatalities, during a news conference Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019.

Another reason for the lower death rate is that alcohol-related deaths dropped from 36 to 19 last year, although that preliminary number is expected to rise as more toxicology reports become available from late-in-the-year accidents.

Officials said that decrease likely was because of Utah’s new law that on Dec. 30 lowered the blood alcohol content where people are considered legally drunk from 0.08 to 0.05. They say many people mistakenly thought the law took effect earlier.

“When the 0.05 law passed, I think people just started adjusting their behavior,” Davis said.

When Rapich was asked if he thought the new DUI law brought the drop, he said, “I hope so. The whole point of the 0.05 law is to make better choices on drinking and driving…. It’s a very stupid choice to get behind the wheel after you have been drinking.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Highway Patrol Col. Michael Rapich talks about the data for 2018 highway fatalities, during a news conference Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019.

Officials see some trends that concern them, especially the number of deaths among motorcyclists — which increased from 39 to 47 last year.

“Motorcyclists can’t buckle up, but they can wear helmets, leathers and other protective gear,” Davis said. State law requires helmets for riders younger than age 18 — but legislators have consistently killed bills seeking to require them for adults.

“This increase isn’t just on the motorcyclists. Motorists need to be aware of the motorcyclists out there,” he added.

Rapich noted that one of every three highway deaths last year involved what he calls “vulnerable highway users” — motorcyclists (47 deaths), pedestrians (39) and bicyclists (3). He said that shows a greater need for other motorists to watch for them, and not just other cars.

While data shows that only 17 fatalities occurred involving distracted driving — such as texting, talking on cellphones or eating — officials said they believe that statistic should actually be much higher.

“We have a hard time catching up with what the distraction was,” or whether one caused a death, Rapich said. “But we’re good at catching the result of the distraction.”

Also, 82 deaths involved aggressive driving, mostly speeding. And 15 involved drowsy drivers.

Davis also noted that no deaths occurred on 187 days last year.

“That’s half the year with no fatalities. Some states, like Texas, would be happy with maybe one day with zero fatalities,” he said. “It shows that zero fatalities is an obtainable goal — if we make wise decisions.”