Bad omen for busy Memorial Day: Utah road deaths rose amid light traffic in COVID-19 shutdowns

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Light rush hour traffic on I-15 in Farmington on April 22, 2020 during coronavirus stay-at-home orders.

It’s not a good omen for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend start of the “100 deadliest days” of driving each year during summer: Fatal accidents already increased in Utah even as traffic thinned during coronavirus stay-at-home orders.

“When traffic has been reduced by sometimes 50% of the vehicles on the road, we’re seeing an increase in fatalities. And that really doesn’t make sense,” said Utah Department of Transportation spokesman John Gleason at an event urging safe summer driving.

Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Nick Street says that anecdotally, some of that may have come from people speeding — sometimes at more than 100 mph — or otherwise driving recklessly figuring that the highways now are wide open.

“Anecdotally, troopers have seen more severe crashes than they have in years past,” Street said. “We're seeing a lot more vehicle pursuits. So violators are getting a little more brazen with even running from the cops.”

It’s not just speeding at high rates leading to an increase in deaths.

“A good portion of them were not wearing seat belts,” Street said. “And a good portion of them happened on the weekends or at night when people kind of let down their guard and don’t do the the simple things like buckling up, removing distractions, not driving impaired and watching your speed.”

Street said Utah had at least six fatalities last weekend, and the Highway Patrol issued 41 drunken driving citations and more than 50 tickets for reckless driving. So this holiday weekend, 30 law agencies are combining to provide 190 extra shifts for officers to patrol for DUIs and other extreme behavior.

For data collected through Tuesday, Gleason said Utah has suffered 86 road deaths this year — compared to 81 last year and 80 the previous year.

“It may not seem like that much of an increase,” Gleason said. “But when you consider we’ve had significantly reduced traffic … it takes you back a little bit. We should have had reduced fatalities.”

During the weeks of stay-at-home orders, UDOT data showed that freeway traffic statewide was down to about 60% of normal — but it returned to near normal levels once those orders were eased.

Street noted that overall traffic accidents were down by about 50% during stay-at-home orders, but fatalities rose because of serious accidents caused by such things as extreme speeding and reckless driving.

Especially with traffic back at normal levels now, Gleason and Street urged people to be cautious as the most dangerous season of driving begins with more people on the road.

Gleason also said some people haven’t driving much during coronavirus restrictions, and their driving skills may be a little rusty — so they should give themselves some time to acclimate.

“I’ve talked to a few people who went back out on the freeways for the first time in the last week or so,” he said. “They said it’s a little jarring to get out there in live traffic when they haven’t driven in a while.”

He adds, “The bottom line is we all have to put away the distractions. We have to wear our seat belts — no matter how many other people are on the road. It really comes down to each of us making the right choices.”

He said Utahns did that during last year’s 100 deadliest days on the road when it had 61 fatalities, down 40% from the previous year. “That was incredibly encouraging, and shows people were doing something right."