ST. GEORGE — As the death toll on Utah’s roadways continues to climb despite fewer vehicles being on the road, the state is running a campaign to urge motorists to start making one small change to make the roads safer and to stop justifying bad behaviors.
The campaign from Utah Department of Transportation, Department of Public Safety and Zero Fatalities Utah is based on new research that may shed some light on why drivers behave the way they do behind the wheel.
Carlos Braceras, Utah Department of Transportation’s executive director said in a statement released March 15 that the study “overwhelmingly” shows that drivers in Utah care about safety. However, Braceras said, the research also suggests that drivers make dangerous decisions because they believe those decisions are acceptable – and because of this they make excuses and tell themselves “little lies” to justify those reckless behaviors.
In Utah, overconfidence in roadway safety is only making the problems worse and the underlying campaign message from UDOT is: “Our lies are costing lives.”
While everyone agrees they want Utah’s roads safer, Braceras said people “can do better – together,” adding that if each driver made one small change – such as buckling up or ignoring a text – then lives will be saved. This one small change will be different for everyone, but the combined effort will only enhance traffic safety for everyone across the state.
Number of fatalities in 2020 were ‘unexpected and cause for concern’
Despite a 13% drop in the number of vehicles on the road last year, traffic fatalities jumped by more than 10%, according to preliminary estimates provided by UDOT.
Braceras said those numbers are “unexpected and cause for concern.”
This year isn’t off to a very good start either.
Since Jan. 1, there have been 50 people killed on Utah’s roadways, up from 38 during that same period last year.
“Utah isn’t alone in this troubling trend,” according to Zero Fatalities Utah.
In an open letter to Americans from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency reported the pandemic and resulting economic dislocations and stay-at-home orders were accompanied by a sharp increase in risky driving, which resulted in a higher number of fatal crashes.
The traffic safety agency also reported that more than 65% of drivers treated at trauma centers across the country tested positive for alcohol and drugs. Additionally, in April 2020 alone, the average number of people thrown from a vehicle more than doubled – indicating they were not properly restrained at the time of the crash.
“The truth is we need to look at our own behavior and be better drivers,” Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson said in the statement, adding that motorists can no longer justify that one text or that one trip where they drive above the posted speed limit because “that one decision can change everything.”
Likewise, one smart decision or change in behavior by drivers can alter everything for the better as well, which is the purpose behind the safety campaign.
Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Nick Street told St. George News the rise in fatality rates is concerning and agreed that there are things drivers and their passengers can do to increase their chance of coming out of a crash alive.
Street suggested one possible small change before people even start driving. The first thing, he said, is to make sure everyone is buckled up.
Street said that Utah has a high safety belt use rate, with less than 10% that fail to buckle up; however, he added, “that 10% accounts for more than half of all occupants killed in crashes across the state.”
He also said that men ages 18-44 have the highest death rate when it comes to crashes and are also less likely to be restrained during a crash.
Fatality rates for Utah’s teen drivers could be a problem with parents
To ensure the changes stick, Zero Fatalities recently launched a new website that showcases videos and resources to help educate drivers – including teen drivers, who have a higher traffic crash fatality rate than their older, more experienced counterparts.
In fact, Utah came in at No. 9 on the list of deadliest states for teen drivers. Even with the complete ban on cellphone use for novice drivers and a ban on nighttime driving until the age of 17, as well as some restricted privileges for daytime driving, Utah is still dangerous for young drivers, who account for more than 16% of all traffic fatalities, according to Safety.com.
To address the dangers for the state’s teenage drivers, Zero Fatalities will host 150 parent nights to help teens establish safe driving habits and also remind parents to be better examples – which is critical, as the research shows that parents have much more influence over their teen driver than they realize.
The most powerful education in traffic safety is taught by example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says; however, a study by Liberty Mutual found that “parents are setting a poor example for teens” by texting and driving as well as engaging in other unsafe driving behaviors.
Parents are also not heeding their children’s warnings. According to Safety.com, more than 40% of teens reported their parents continued to engage in unsafe behaviors even after the teens asked them to stop, and nearly 30% said of teens said their parents justify unsafe behaviors behind the wheel.
Traffic crashes are still the leading cause of death for teens nationwide, and more than 2,100 young lives were lost in traffic crashes nationwide in 2018, which represents the most recent data available.
Street said the No. 1 cause of teen crashes is distraction, whether from other passengers, technology or not paying attention. To reduce the risk of being involved in a crash, he said, teen drivers need to devote 100% of their attention to driving. These younger drivers also need to make sure their passengers are buckled up – every time, without exception, he said.
The year-round safety program recently launched across the state is designed to educate Utah drivers on the five deadly driving behaviors:
- Distracted driving.
- Aggressive driving, which includes driving too fast.
- Drowsy driving.
- Impaired driving, including prescription drugs.
- Not wearing seat belts.
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