SALT LAKE CITY — An unprecedented 16 times so far this year, a Utah Highway Patrol trooper or a trooper's vehicle has been hit on the freeway.
And 16 times, a member of the UHP's top brass has made an impassioned plea to the public to slow down and give troopers space on the road.
Now, some of the spouses of those troopers are hoping that if the public won't listen to those in uniform, perhaps they'll listen to them.
"They just think of (the troopers hit) as cops. They don't realize they're husbands and they're fathers, they're supporting a family by going out there and doing that. They have a lot more to lose than a car," said Erin Pope.
"They're fathers and they're husbands and he's not just a guy out there in a uniform. He means something to somebody."
Pope's husband, trooper Mike Pope, was attending to an accident on Feb. 23, sitting in his patrol car waiting for a tow truck to arrive. Suddenly, another vehicle came up too fast and slid out of control on the snowy and icy road, smashing right into him.
"Please, please move over. Think of somebody else besides yourself for a moment and realize they're out there protecting other people," Alisha Shelby pleaded to the public.
"One day it may be (you) that they're protecting," she said. "They need to realize troopers have families they need to get home to every night."
Though Shelby's husband isn't one of the 16 troopers hit this year, Brent Shelby is the trooper who was most seriously injured this winter season when he was hit by a vehicle on Christmas Eve.
Shelby was responding to an accident on I-15 near 7600 South. He was outside his car, setting up road flares to caution other drivers to slow down, when a driver came around a corner too quickly, lost control and knocked him over the hood of her vehicle. Shelby landed on his head on the concrete.
Alisha Shelby and her three children, ages 5, 3 and 1, spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the hospital.
"It pretty much took his leg and twisted it all around. It tore every ligament out of his knee that can be torn out, and so it will be a long recovery for him," said UHP Col. Daniel Fuhr.
Shelby, who walks today with the assistance of a cane, isn't expected to be able to return to work for another nine months to a year. He is scheduled for another surgery in three months. Until then, he goes to his physical therapy sessions three times a week as he slowly tries to regain his strength and full use of his leg.
Despite the severity of that accident, many motorists still did not slow down, and the number of accidents involving troopers continues to pile up as frequently as the snow flies.
In January alone, the Highway Patrol had 464 extra shifts filled by troopers to work snow days. There have been more than 3,000 crashes and 7,000 motorists in need of help this year so far — translating into a 56 percent increase in freeway crashes.
Six of the 16 crashes involving troopers during 2013 occurred along a seven-mile stretch in Salt Lake County between Murray and Salt Lake City. In all but one of those crashes, a trooper was assisting with another accident when he was hit.
In January alone, nine UHP troopers were hit, including four on Jan. 24, the day of the ice storm. Just 12 troopers were hit during all of 2012.
"When I'm back out there in that snowstorm, it's a little almost post-traumatic because I'm really concerned about being hit again," said UHP Lt. Lee Perry, who suffered a knee injury when he was hit Jan. 27. He is now back on the job.
"After being hit once, you're really concerned when you get out there, you're watching that traffic thinking, 'I don't want to be No. 17.'"
But other than repeat warnings to the public reminding motorists to slow down and merge left of the lane where a trooper is pulled over, what other options do troopers have?
"The conversations are, 'What can we do?' We're looking at all possible options out there," Perry said.
One proposal is for troopers to park their cars farther away from the accident they're investigating and put a 4-by-4-foot pink magnetic sign on the backs of their vehicles with the words, "Slow Down: Crash Ahead."
Perry, who is also a state representative, said the high number of injured troopers this year has also sparked questions and concerns on Utah's Capitol Hill. But he conceded that any new laws or changes from the Legislature probably won't happen during this session.
One policy change the UHP isn't willing to consider making yet is the placement of trooper's vehicles at the scenes of accidents. UHP policy requires troopers to position themselves between an accident and oncoming traffic — essentially putting themselves in harm's way in order to prevent further injury and damage should another vehicle come sliding out of control into the accident scene.
"A lot of people have been questioning, 'Well, maybe the procedures of the highway patrol need to change.' We'd love to," Fuhr said. "I could stop all the crashes today if I changed the procedure. If I made it so that every single state trooper pulled in front of a crash scene and did not protect it, and did not render aid to those who need it, we wouldn't have any cars hit. But that goes contrary to what a police officer stands for.
"They are there to run toward danger when other people run away. They are there to protect people who are stranded and in need of help," Fuhr said. "The trooper has to ask himself, 'Do I put myself in danger, or do I continue to let these people in danger be in greater danger?' That's what a police officer does."
Perry concurred that despite the number of accidents, troopers will continue to protect and serve, and act as a barricade if needed.
Despite the high number accidents this year, Fuhr estimates that 90 percent of drivers are heeding the warnings and slowing down.
"Do we trade off 90 percent of the compliant people and put these other people at greater risk? We're saying no, not at this time," Fuhr said. "Our troopers, they sit in that car, waiting for a tow truck and ambulances to arrive, and they sit in there and they look in that rear view mirror thinking, 'I could very well be hit.' That's a nervous seat to be in."
The Deseret News spoke to several spouses of troopers who have been injured, and they all said they're comfortable with UHP keeping its policy of troopers putting themselves in harm's way to protect the public. Many said they knew that was part of the job when their spouses signed up to be troopers.
But while troopers are putting their lives on the line, they believe the public needs to do its part to give a little back.
"(The public doesn't) understand they're someone's family member, it's someone's son, someone's father, it's a husband, it's an uncle, it's a brother. They don't put that two and two together. A lot of people tell me, 'Well you knew this risk going into it. You knew this was something that could happen.' But just because we knew it was a risk going into it, it doesn't mean it's OK," said Cherilyn Christensen, whose husband was outside his patrol car setting up flares when another vehicle slid out of control into his vehicle.
"I know sending my husband out there, the department has his back. Other officers out on the road have his back. But it's kind of irrelevant because it just doesn't make enough of a difference. We need to have everybody be more aware. Everybody needs to be keeping their eyes up and watching out for our officers, otherwise it doesn't matter," said Christensen. "I wish people would think of (troopers) more as a person rather than just an officer who gives me ticket."
The Christensens have a 6-month-old daughter.
"They're there to protect the other person, that's their job is to get in between them," concurred Shelby. "I'm OK with it because that's their job."
Some have also questioned why the UHP doesn't block off large sections of the freeway when attending to an accident. Both Fuhr and Perry said not only does that require additional manpower, but many times it only puts the public in danger by causing additional accidents farther up the road.
Such an accident happened on Monday when officers shut down I-15 in Kaysville due to a chase and a fatal officer-involved shooting involving a man with a gun. Traffic on northbound I-15 quickly slowed to a standstill. An 18-year-old woman who came up on the slowing traffic too quickly was killed after trying to avoid the vehicles in front of her and slamming into a semitrailer.
"People are actually running over our flare patterns. They will run over a lighted flare to get an extra lane," Fuhr said.
Some of the wives believe the higher number of snow days this winter may be to blame for the increase in accidents, while others said that is only part of the problem.
"Even if we hadn't had this snow, we'd have accidents because people don't pay attention," Pope said.
Some of the wives questioned whether there needs to be greater consequences against drivers who hit troopers, arguing that if drivers won't pay attention to UHP warnings, maybe they'll pay attention to fines.
"If there's not a consequence, people don't generally change. In my opinion, there should be harsher punishment for people who do hit our law enforcers," Christensen said.
"They should be held accountable for something rather than just getting a ticket for going too fast for conditions," she said.
Neither Perry nor Fuhr said the UHP is ready to seek that kind of action. In 100 percent of the accidents involving troopers this year, having fines wouldn't have mattered because no driver intentionally hit a trooper.
"People aren't intending to hit the troopers, they just aren't using common sense. They aren't thinking about fines or anything like that. They're thinking about getting to their next destination as quickly as possible," Fuhr said.
One solution, according to troopers, may be to re-train drivers and their habits when they approach an accident or see a trooper on the side of the road. The first instinct of most drivers is to hit their brakes hard. Brent Shelby said all that does is cause the vehicle to slide out of control in the direction of where the driver was last looking. In his case, Shelby said the driver was looking right at him, saw his flashing lights, slammed on the brakes and slid right into him.
Troopers say drivers need to first give themselves plenty of distance between the vehicles in front of them on snowy days in addition to reducing their speed. And when drivers approach an accident, they should take their foot off the gas pedal and let their vehicle coast to a slower speed before applying the brakes.
The UHP is also continuing to push its message that if a driver is involved in a minor fender-bender, they should drive to the nearest exit and then call troopers.
The spouses of troopers who spoke to the Deseret News said that despite all of this year's accidents, they're not about to tell their loved ones to call in sick on the next snowy day.
"We've been doing this long enough that I'm not really worried about that. When your husband says he wants to be a trooper … you kind of learn to deal with it. You never know, it could snow or it could be nice and sunny. He could be hit in any condition," Pope said.
"You just kind of learn to bite the bullet and say, 'OK, he may not come home.' You're just hoping that he makes the right decisions — and that the public makes the right decisions."
2013 trooper crashes
• Jan. 1 — A trooper investigating a crash on I-15 near 600 South was hit after a car slid into him.
• Jan. 10 — Trooper Jason Whitehead was investigating a crash on I-15 near 2500 South when another vehicle slid into him while he was inside his car. He suffered minor injuries.
• Jan. 24 — Trooper Kristopher Cope was investigating a crash on I-15 near 1000 South. He had just exited his car to assist the driver who had hit him from behind when another car slammed into the pileup.
• Jan. 24 — Trooper David Brooks, investigating a crash on I-15 near 5300 South, was hit after a car slid into him. It was the fifth time in his career that he was hit.
• Jan. 24 — A trooper investigating a crash on I-15 near Springville was hit after a car slid into him.
• Jan. 24 — Trooper Joshua Porter was investigating a crash in Farr West near 1900 West and 250 North when he was hit by a sliding car.
• Jan. 27 — Lt. Lee Perry suffered minor injuries while investigating a crash on I-15 near the Utah-Idaho border when a car slid into him.
• Jan. 27 — A trooper investigating a crash on I-15 near Springville was hit after car slid into him.
• Jan. 28 — A trooper investigating a crash on I-15 near 2100 South was hit by a sliding car.
• Feb. 8 — Trooper Rod Elmer, investigating a crash on I-70 in Clear Creek Canyon in the Fishlake National Forest, was hit after car slid into him. Elmer suffered minor injuries.
• Feb. 9 — A trooper investigating a crash on I-80 in Tooele County was hit after car slid into him.
• Feb. 9 — Sgt. Nathan Croft's car was struck while Croft was speaking to a witness of an accident on I-80.
• Feb. 10 —Trooper Jason Whitehead was investigating a crash on I-15 near 2500 South when another vehicle slid into him while he was in his car. He suffered minor injuries.
• Feb. 12 — A trooper who had pulled over a car on a traffic stop on I-15 near University Parkway in Orem was hit by a vehicle that slid out of control.
• Feb. 22 — A trooper investigating a crash on I-15 near 800 North in Orem was hit while sitting in his vehicle. He suffered minor injuries.
• Feb 23 — A trooper helping with a crash near the 12th Street exit in Weber County was hit by an SUV. Hs patrol car was totaled. The trooper suffered minor injuries.
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