Utah road fatalities fell 40% during the ‘100 Deadliest Days’ of summer

(Photo courtesty of the Utah Department of Transportation) Meagan Morgan, 18, was riding in this SUV when it rolled on July 4. She suffered a broken neck but survived because she was wearing a seat belt.

Murray • Highway officials traditionally call summer the “100 Deadliest Days.” They may need to change that description now: fatalities were down a whopping 40% this year.

“I was asked if this was blind, dumb luck. No, it is drivers making better decisions. More of them buckle up, don’t drive distracted or impaired, and they slow down,” said Jason Davis, deputy director of the Utah Department of Transportation.

Fatalities dropped from 103 last year between Memorial Day and Labor Day to 62 this year. “That is our greatest statistical decrease ever,” Davis said at a news conference at Intermountain Medical Center — surrounded by 41 people wearing numbered T-shirts to count off and represent each extra survivor.

Wearing shirt No. 1 — and a neck brace — was Meagan Hunter, 18, a Brigham Young University freshman who plans to run on the school’s track team. Some good decisions saved her life this summer, barely.

Before the sun rose on the morning of July 4, she was riding in car driven by her brother.

“We were driving on the canyon roads and came around a corner — and there’s a deer in front of us. My brother swerved,” she said. “Our car ended up rolling several times.”

Three vertebrae in her neck “were smashed really bad,” and required surgery, she said. But “things just could have been so much worse. If we weren’t wearing our seat belts, then I probably wouldn’t be here today.”

(Photo courtesy of The Utah Department of Transportation) Meagan Hunter is surrounded by friends in the hospital after surviving a car crash because she was wearing a seat belt.

As proof, she said their car had been full of equipment that was scattered far and wide in fields as the car rolled. “Not much that was in the car survived that wasn’t strapped in.” She added, “I just feel really lucky.”

Davis said luck had nothing to do with it.

“It’s because they made great decisions,” he said. “It wasn’t luck that they had their seat belts on. They made the decision to put them on. They weren’t lucky that they were driving the speed limit. They made that decision.”

Utah Highway Patrol Superintendent Michael Rapich said troopers usually expect to handle about one fatality a day during summer, when more people are driving at all hours — sometimes as they are tired during long trips or vacations.

On behalf of police statewide, he said, “I want to thank everyone out there who made the good decision to wear a seat belt. ... Thank you to all of those who chose to slow down a little bit. ... Thank you to all of those who made a good decision that if they’re going to drink, don’t let driving be a part of that.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Davis said officials don’t want to celebrate too much because 62 people still died this summer — and many of those deaths were preventable.

“For example, 10 of the people who died were not wearing seat belts,” Davis said. “We also still see people with their phone while they are driving. But obviously people are listening and not doing it as much.” State statistics show fatalities this summer involved one drowsy driver, two distracted drivers, eight who were speeding and 10 who were unrestrained. Those who were killed included 41 motorists, nine pedestrians, 11 motorcyclists and one bicyclist.

Rapich said anyone who has lost a loved one knows what those 62 deaths mean: “62 tragedies, 62 families shattered, and 62 painful encounters that never, ever go away.”

Adam Balls, IMC’s emergency department chairman, said his hospital saw car crash injuries drop from 235 last summer to just under 200 this summer — about a 20% decrease. “This represents significant improvement, but it also represents a continued opportunity that we have to continue to exert ourselves.”

While Davis agreed there’s plenty of room for improvement, he said that this year’s big decline is encouraging. “Hopefully this is a tipping point where people are changing their behavior. They’ve learned that there is a better way to get from point A to B and be safe about it.”

With a safer summer, fatalities for the full year so far are down 19% — from 186 at this time last year to 151 now.