Utah drivers bump, smash, crash and bang into more accidents than residents of any other Western state - which may give new meaning to the slogan "Crossroads of the West."

A new study by the Insurance Research Council shows that drivers in 12 other states are more accident-prone - but they are all in the East or Midwest.Meanwhile, the finding in the study that worries national insurance officials the most is that more people are deciding to file bodily injury claims - including a 30.7 percent increase in Utah during the 1980s.

The study, "Trends in Auto Bodily Injury Claims," may silence those Utahns who criticize Californian drivers - or those from any other Western state.

The study shows that in 1989, Utah ranked 13th in the nation - and first in the West - for the highest rate of property-damage claims: 4.29 for every 100 insured cars.

The average vehicle-damage claim in the state was $1,115 - and the total of such claims paid in 1989 cost $47.82 for every insured car in the state.

California was second worst in the West - and 15th worst overall - with 4.24 auto property-damage claims for every 100 insured cars.

Massachusetts was worst in the nation with a rate of 9.24 per every 100 insured cars. The only states worse than Utah that are also west of the Mississippi were Missouri and Texas.

Inside Utah, the study shows that Salt Lake County drivers have the worst accident rate - filing 5.39 property-damage claims per 100 insured cars (an average for the years 1985 to 1987).

Next worst was Utah County with a rate of 4.8 claims per 100 insured cars; Davis County with 4.56 per 100 insured cars; and Weber County with 4.42 per 100 insured cars. The average for the rest of the state was 3.48 per 100 insured cars.

Ironically, the accident rates in Salt Lake, Davis, Utah and Weber counties are all worse than the 4.21 rate in metropolitan Los Angeles - the area that is often the butt of bad-driving jokes in Utah.

The Insurance Research Council was most concerned about the increasing number of people filing bodily injury claims nationwide while vehicle-damage claims have actually been dropping on average.

In Utah, for example, the number of bodily injury claims jumped 30.7 percent during the 1980s to 17.9 injury claims per 100 vehicle-damage claims. Meanwhile, the number of vehicle-damage claims in Utah dropped 3.4 percent during the 1980s.

"That's significant because vehicle-damage claims are a good measure of how many accidents actually are happening. An increase in the injury claim rate when vehicle-damage claims are declining suggests a major change in injury claiming behavior," said Donald Segraves, executive director of the Insurance Research Council.

Segraves said, "When we look at claim files in states and cities with high injury claim frequencies, we don't find any larger numbers of serious injuries than in areas with low claim frequencies.

"What we see are more people with attorneys and more people reporting neck and back sprains - so many more that these cases now account for nearly half of all the auto insurance dollars paid for highway injuries."

The average "bodily injury" claim - paid by the driver at fault - in Utah in 1989 was $8,389. The average loss from the total claims paid was $64.92 for each insured car in the state.

Also, the rate of "physical injury protection" claims - paid regardless of who was at fault in the 14 "no fault" insurance states - was 1.63 per 100 insured cars in Utah. The average claim was $1,527. The average loss from the total in such claims paid was $24.83 per insured car.

Despite the increase, Utah still ranks low in the number of bodily injury claims - 38th in the nation.

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Chart #1:

The nation's worst drivers

Number of vehicle-damage claims per 100 insured cars:

The worst

1. Massachusetts 9.24

2. District of Columbia 5.87

3. New York 5.50

Still bad

13. Utah 4.29

13. (tie) Kentucky 4.29

15. California 4.24

The safest

48. Montana 3.26

49 North Carolina 3.23

50. Wyoming 2.91

Source: Insurance Research Council (Michigan was excluded from the study).

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Worst of the West

Number of vehicle-damage claims per 100 insured cars among selected Western states:

National

State Rate Rank

Utah 4.29 13

California 4.24 15

Nevada 4.15 17

Arizona 4.06 23

New Mexico 3.65 41

Colorado 3.62 42

Idaho 3.49 44

Montana 3.26 48

Wyoming 2.91 50

Source: Insurance Research Council