COVID-19 helps kill Utahns on highways — from more speeding on less-crowded roads

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Highway sign on I-15 on May 1, 2020.

COVID-19 continues to help kill and hospitalize Utahns in an unexpected and collateral way: in car crashes.

During a monthly update about highway fatalities, the Utah Transportation Commission was told Friday that traffic volume and crashes have been way down because of COVD-19 restrictions keeping more people home — but deaths and serious injuries are up anyway.

“The roads are open, and people are traveling faster. So, when they are in crashes, those crashes tend to be more serious,” said Rob Wight, operations director for the Utah Department of Transportation.

Transportation Commissioner Wayne Barlow added, “Those who are inclined to speed way over the limit see an almost empty road and it probably encourages them to have the lead foot.”

Wight adds that the problem has surfaced nationwide, and a study in Minnesota showed that the number of speeders there who exceed limits by at least 20 mph has doubled during recent months amid COVID-19 restrictions.

Commissioner Lew Cramer lamented, “You can’t help but note that we’ve had about as many fatalities on the road as we’ve had with COVID.”

Data shown to commission on Friday shows Utah has had 114 deaths on its highways so far this year, compared to 104 at the same time last year. As of Friday, the state had reported 166 deaths from COVID.

Cramer said that just as he has been frustrated in urging others to wear face masks to help protect others from COVID, he feels too many Utahns are skipping easy steps that could help prevent death and injury on the road. He noted that more than half of fatalities in most years are related to people who do not wear seat belts, despite laws requiring it.

He also bemoaned that many motorcyclists refuse to wear helmets, “and then it becomes everybody’s problem when they’re in the hospital.” Utah law only requires helmets for motorcyclists under age 21, and the Legislature has voted down numerous attempts to require them for others amid opposition from riders.

Wight said serious injuries from accidents are up, although that data is only available through April. They showed 273 serious injuries through that time, well above state targets of no more than 228.

UDOT data show that weekday traffic volume on Interstate 15 in Salt Lake County dropped as low as 50% of normal amid COVID-19 restrictions. They have returned to near-normal volume as restrictions eased. The average volume on I-15 in Salt Lake County over the past seven days is 92% of normal.

In comparison, the average volume in the past seven days for some other areas include: 95% on I-15 in Utah County; 91% on I-15 in Davis County; 105% on I-15 in Weber County; and 84% on Interstate 215 in Salt Lake County.