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Weekend storm adds traffic accidents to 2013's already high total

Published: Sunday, Feb. 10 2013 7:22 p.m. MST

Damage to Trooper Jason Whitehead's cruiser after he was hit early Sunday morning. Troopers talk Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013 about being involved in accidents while on duty. They ask for drivers to slow down and be careful.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Snowy and icy conditions during the first weeks of 2013 have resulted in more trooper-involved accidents on Utah's highways than all of 2012, according to the Utah Highway Patrol.

This weekend's storm saw four instances where the vehicles of troopers responding to accident scenes were struck by drivers, including one crash that occurred early Sunday morning.

At approximately 2:30 a.m. on Sunday, Trooper Jason Whitehad was investigating a crash on I-15 near 2500 South when an approaching driver lost control of her vehicle and spun into Whitehead's car. Whitehead was sitting in his vehicle at the time and suffered minor injuries.

"I didn't even see it coming," Whitehead said. "On these snow days when there's storms and the roads are bad like this, you've just got to expect that we're going to be on the side of the road, over the next hill or around the next curve."

On Sunday, UHP officials held a press conference during which they urged drivers to slow down and move over when approaching emergency personnel.

"Please slow down," UHP Lt. Steven Winward said. "Give them a lane and move over so we can investigate what we need to do. All these troopers want to go home and see their families at the end of the day."

The weekend's storm brought the year-to-date total of trooper-involved accidents to 13, according to the highway patrol. During all of 2012, there were 12 such incidents.

In January alone, UHP reports that there were 3,160 vehicle crashes, a 56 percent increase over the same period last year, and 7,360 incidents where members of the public required assistance on Utah's highways.

The increase in traffic accidents on Utah's highways has resulted in troopers working 464 additional shifts to meet the demand and has put a strain on the UHP budget, Winward said. He said Utah's Legislature sets aside overtime funding for the highway patrol, but the added hours have taken a toll on troopers as well.

"It's a big strain on them because they're expecting to have a day off or two and then we're calling them to come out and help on crashes," he said. "A lot of troopers have been burning out but they've still been working hard and coming out and helping where they can. They have a stewardship to the public and they feel an obligation to help them."

He also said the frequency of trooper-involved accidents has presented logistical challenges, as an inordinate number of UHP vehicles have been out of commission for repair. He said many of the troopers involved in accidents have been using shuttle trucks, which are typically used to patrol Utah's canyon roads.

"We have no extra cars," Winward said. "Right now with all the cars being hit it is a strain on the budget. Fortunately, some of the vehicles that have been hitting them have insurance to cover those costs but we don't have cars to put the troopers in."

The vehicle of UHP Sgt. Nathan Croft was struck Saturday just after 6 p.m. while Croft was speaking to a witness of an an accident on I-80. He said that even after accounting for last year's mild winter, the rate of incidents in 2013 is high.

"It seems like a lot," he said. "Seems like every week or so we just have crash days where we're going all day, crash after crash."

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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