Law enforcement and public safety officials implored Utah lawmakers Wednesday to take action on a bill meant to curb a sharp increase in state roadway deaths.
But at least one lawmaker was concerned he would be penalized under the proposed bill’s harsher triple-digit speeding penalties.
“Am I going to get inadvertently hit for, you know, going close to 100 miles an hour? It’s 80 miles an hour there,” Sen. Jacob L. Anderegg, R-Lehi, said about a recent drive home from Las Vegas, when he reached nearly 100 mph. “It was going downhill, so I didn’t even think about. It was a smooth ride.”
Speaking of his recent trip, Anderegg asked if the bill would affect drivers statewide or only near the capital city.
Bill sponsor Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, told Anderegg she had heard similar concerns from multiple lawmakers. That is why she bumped the bill’s original threshold for harsher penalties from 100 mph to 105 mph. But yes, she said — it would impact the entire state.
“Because,” she said, “at that level ... it’s about saving lives.”
The Utah Highway Patrol reported a 20-year high in state roadway deaths last year, and troopers are citing hundreds more people a year for speeding faster than 100 mph than they did just a few years ago.
The bill would codify speeding over 105 mph as reckless driving, which is a class B misdemeanor, and would impose a mandatory fine for anyone convicted of speeding faster than 100 mph.
It also takes aim at illegal street racing by raising the offense level for racers from a class B misdemeanor to a class A misdemeanor and making spectating at such races a class B misdemeanor. The measure would also allow police to seize a vehicle that is not street legal and was used for racing.
Iwamoto worked on SB53 with the help of law enforcement agencies, including the Department of Public Safety and Salt Lake City Police Department.
Utah Highway Patrol Col. Michael Rapich told lawmakers that troopers saw a six-year low in traffic fatalities in 2019. Then, they saw a spike in 2020 that continued into 2021. He said preliminary reports show 328 people died on Utah roads last year.
“For six years, we were going very much in the right direction,” Rapich said, “and over the past two years, we’ve completely reversed that to the point in 2021, we’re at a 20-year-high.”
Speed was a factor in 1 in 4 fatal crashes over the last two years, he said.
Rapich said that in the three years before 2020, troopers issued about 3,500 tickets for drivers traveling over 100 mph. In 2020 and 2021, he said that average jumped to around 5,000.
As of Jan. 30 this year, troopers reported 21 fatal crashes — 5% more than the first 30 days of last year — and pulled over more than 10,000 speeders. Nearly 500 of them were driving faster than 100 mph.
When someone is driving that fast, Rapich said it puts lives at risk because drivers can’t stop as quickly and have a harder time avoiding hazards on the road.
Carlos M. Braceras, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, told committee members that officials have “never seen conditions like we have on our roadways today.”
”I appreciate Senator Anderegg, you know, recognizing the smooth ride on I-15,” he said before he paused, sighed, and continued. “Our roads have never been safer. Our cars have never been safer. But people are making bad choices on our roadways.”
A sticking point for lawmakers Thursday was a provision in the bill that punishes spectators of street racing events.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown told committee members Wednesday that such races last hours and draw hundreds of cars and about 1,000 attendees to the city’s industrial areas on the west side. He said street racing-related calls to police increased from 71 in 2019 to 409 in 2020.
“Make no mistake, street racing is dangerous,” Brown said, “and I’ve heard people explain or maybe say it’s a victimless crime. It’s not.”
He shared a video of a May 2020 race where police said people were reportedly selling drugs and stolen car parts. The video also captures a shooting.
Defense attorney Mark Moffat told lawmakers he was concerned that the bill would criminalize people watching these races.
“We saw the video, and I would submit that the offenses that Chief Brown enumerated on that video are already crimes in this state and could absolutely be prosecuted,” Moffat said. “But our concern is with the prosecution of people who are mere spectators.”
At least three lawmakers said they were concerned about spectators being punished. Salt Lake County Deputy District Attorney Will Carlson noted that Utah law similarly penalizes spectators at dog fights, and noted that this bill could be changed so that inadvertent spectators are not liable.
Lawmakers opted to table the bill until the next committee meeting so the sponsors could make changes. That meeting isn’t scheduled yet, but Iwamoto said she is hopeful it would be presented again next week.