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Roadway safety a major concern over final summer holiday weekend

Published: Thursday, Aug. 28 2014 5:55 p.m. MDT

Traffic moves on I-15 in Salt Lake County during rush hour, Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — While Labor Day weekend is considered the unofficial end of the summer vacation season, it also has the more notorious distinction of being the close of the period known as the “100 deadliest days” on Utah highways.

Last year, 85 people died on state roadways during the nearly four-month period from Memorial Day through Labor Day. This year, that number has already reached 91 fatalities, according to Utah Highway Patrol trooper Lawrence Hopper, with Labor Day still to come.

“It’s been a deadly summer,” Hopper lamented.

Data from the Utah Department of Public Safety shows at least 217 deaths occurred annually on state roadways from 2004 to 2013, including a high of 299 in 2007. Last year marked the second-lowest total — 220 deaths — in Utah since 1959.

Despite the improvement, law enforcement officials say the number of people losing their lives on Utah highways is still too high.

“More fatalities are occurring this year than last year. Drowsy driving plays a big factor," Hopper said, "(as do) distracted driving, people texting, impaired driving — either alcohol or drugs — and people not driving courteously.”

Motorists' failing to be considerate of others on the road can lead to tragic consequences, he said.

“People being too much in a hurry and being selfish when it comes to driving,” Hopper added.

That callous behavior behind the wheel can result in heartbreak and loss to more than just the victims involved in the crashes, he said.

“Each of these (victims) all have families,” Hopper noted.

Having to notify next of kin of a loved one's death “is never a pleasant thing for us to have to do,” he added.

“There are faces to these numbers (of fatalities),” Hopper said. “People need to remember that there are children who won’t have their mother or father. It’s a huge problem.”

Sometimes in the haste to get to their recreation destination, drivers make poor decisions that create danger for other drivers on the road and those in their vehicles as well, he said. Besides driving more carefully, the “No. 1 thing” motorists can do to prevent more deaths is to wear their seat belts, Hopper said.

Of the 220 highway fatalities reported in Utah last year, 79 deaths involved people who were unrestrained in the vehicle.

“More people are dying because they are not wearing their seat belts than DUI-impaired drivers,” Hopper said. “It’s a real problem.”

Excessive speed, lack of seat belt use and fatigue are among the leading factors in crashes resulting in death on Utah highways, he said.

Utah law enforcement agencies have launched a campaign to raise awareness of the danger of holiday driving on state roadways, particularly impaired driving, touting the message, “Choose your ride. If you drink, don’t drive.”

“We hope this message will serve as a reminder for those who choose to drink this holiday weekend,” Woods Cross Police Chief Greg Butler said. “There are several ways people can get home safely after a few drinks — either via a cab, a sober friend or public transportation. All make for better rides than the back seat of one of our patrol cars.”

As summer unofficially comes to an end, Labor Day is often the last big holiday celebration of the season and a time when drunken driving arrests come close to reaching annual highs across Utah, according to the Utah Highway Patrol.

This weekend, police officers statewide will be increasing public awareness and employing a “no-excuses” approach regarding enforcement during saturation patrols and checkpoints to send the strong message that drunken driving will not be tolerated.

“The Labor Day weekend is a great time to celebrate the end of summer with friends and family,” UHP Sgt. Ted Tingey said. “But we want to make sure that Utahns celebrate responsibly, which means avoiding driving while under the influence of alcohol.”

Email: jlee@deseretnews.com

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