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'Very disturbing': Utah traffic deaths rise for third year in a row

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 19 2016 5:20 p.m. MST

Carlos M. Braceras, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, talks about traffic fatalities on Utah roads in 2015 at a meeting at UDOT's Traffic Operations Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — To Daniel Fuhr, the roads are lined with ghosts.

When he's on his way to work, when he's on his way home, even when he's driving to the store or a friend's house, the Utah Highway Patrol colonel always remembers the location of every fatal car crash.

"I can go through Davis County and I can pinpoint every single person," Fuhr said. "It's absolutely real. And I bet you every single trooper feels the same way."

On Tuesday, the UHP and Utah Department of Transportation announced that for the first time in 15 years, the number of traffic fatalities in Utah has risen for the third year in a row.

Last year, 275 people died on Utah roads.

As many as 94 percent of them were preventable — caused by human error such as distracted driving, impaired driving or driving without a seat belt, according to UDOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras.

And more and more of the victims are pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists, he said.

“We all share the same roadway, and we need to find a way to do it safely," Braceras said.

The multiagency Zero Fatalities initiative is launching a campaign called "Heads Up" to educate people on how to be safer. For motorists, that involves teaching them how a pedestrian might act or move in a near-accident situation. For new drivers, that means representatives from UDOT will be going to local high schools to give presentations on safe driving.

After hitting a 50-year record low in 2012, when 217 people died, the fatalities in Utah have been creeping back up over the past two years.

Braceras called the uptick "very disturbing," in part because the roads should be safer than ever.

"We’re designing and constructing safer roads than we’ve ever done," he said. "Cars are safer than they’ve ever been. But people — people continue to multitask."

The story is in the data. Most wrecks last year took place in typical conditions — on dry roads and on clear days. The most dangerous roads were not the highways, Braceras said, but the smaller roads with intersections and driveways "where people are making constant choices."

And year after year, the most common cause of fatalities are due to motorists not wearing their seat belts.

Last year, 86 people died because they were unrestrained. Seventy-five died due to driving drunk or high. And 64 died due to aggressive driving, typically because they were going too fast.

On Tuesday, Fuhr and Braceras expressed worry — and frustration.

"We talk about this so much. It’s on the billboard, it’s on TV, it was on a Super Bowl commercial last year. Buckle up. Why don’t people wear a seat belt?" Fuhr asked.

Officials said they need more time to see if a seat belt law enacted in May will have an effect on drivers. The bill, passed by the Legislature last year, allows troopers to pull people over for not wearing a seat belt. Before, troopers could only cite people for not wearing a seat belt if they had already been pulled over for another violation, such as speeding.

The use of cellphones and other mobile devices will provide a new challenge. Last year, 27 people died due to distracted driving, such as texting or doing their makeup. Officials said that number is expected to rise.

“If we were a good driver 10 years ago, we have to be an even better driver now," Braceras said.

Email: dchen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DaphneChen_

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