Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Work continues on I-15 near exit 275 in Utah County Tuesday, July 12, 2011. Motorists who run out of gas in the construction zone will be fined $97.

SALT LAKE CITY — Gas prices are up about 60 cents a gallon from a year ago, but for motorists driving through the I-15 CORE expansion project — don’t take chances; gas up.

Stranded motorists along the 24-mile-long project, which spans from Main Street in Lehi to Main Street in Spanish Fork, will get a $97 ticket, warn Utah Highway Patrol officials.

Because of limited travel lanes and no shoulders along many stretches, just one gas tank running on empty can cause big traffic headaches, UHP spokesman Todd Johnson said.

“It ties it up down there for hours on end,” and the problem is getting worse, he said. “It’s enough that (officials are) getting pretty frustrated with it.”

“Overall, the majority (of I-15 CORE) has no shoulder,” Johnson said. “In a normal situation, it wouldn’t be a big deal. Having a mechanical issue, that’s understandable. But running out of fuel — people need to stay on top of that.”

Another way to get the $97 fine — failing to adequately secure a load and letting debris fall onto the roadway.

But the fines are just for the lucky ones — running out of gas along I-15 CORE could cost a motorist’s life.

“There’s real potential of a serious crash. You could be tagged from behind and injured or even killed,” Johnson said.

That’s especially true at night, when traffic is light and visibility poor, he added. During the day, when traffic is heavy, traffic jams are more the issue.

For other problems, like minor accidents, as long as a vehicle can move, motorists involved in accidents should not stop at the scene, says Scott Thompson, a spokesman for the Utah Department of Transportation. It’s best to get drivable vehicles down to the next off ramp, he said, and then deal with the issue.

And stay in the car, Thompson added. If the vehicle cannot move, it’s best to wait for help. Don’t risk getting hit in traffic.

It’s not well known to the public, but running out of gas on the freeway can be against the law for obstructing traffic — whether within the I-15 CORE construction area or elsewhere, Johnson said.

Often drivers are not cited because usually it’s not a problem. UHP troopers have already been citing motorists in Utah County, but they feel the public needs to be more aware of the issue.

When gas prices are high, more motorists tend to run out of gas, says UDOT Incident Management supervisor Dave Stallworth. More drivers are tempted to take chances on just how far they can get before their next fill-up.

“They tend to stretch it out a little,” he said.

In the Salt Lake area, incident management workers give gas to stalled motorists about 80-90 times a month, Stallworth said. Until prices moderated about four months ago, that figure was higher.

And year-by-year, figures on UDOT’s gas giveaways statewide are on the rise. In 2009, it was 736 gallons; in 2010, 855 gallons. And if the pace keeps up for 2011, that figure will go to 915 gallons — latest statistics show 535 gallons given away, so far.

UDOT Incident Management teams will give anywhere from half a gallon to a whole gallon for each stranded motorist, but in the I-15 CORE project motorists are sure to also get a $97 bill, courtesy the Utah Highway Patrol.