Fatalities on Utah roadways rose again for the fourth consecutive year, according to the state Department of Transportation and Department of Public Safety.
A total of 280 people were killed in fatal traffic accidents in 2016, a slight increase over the 278 in 2015. Representatives from UDOT and DPS presented the preliminary data during a press conference at the state Capitol Wednesday morning.
Tooele County saw the fourth highest number of fatalities in the state last year with 20, according to the report from the Zero Fatalities initiative released Wednesday. Salt Lake County had the most fatalities in 2016 with 69, followed by Utah and Davis counties, with 31 and 26, respectively.
Tooele County was also third in the state with 10 unrestrained fatalities, in which the vehicle occupant was not wearing a shoulder belt, lap belt or child safety seat. Utah County had the highest unrestrained fatalities with 12 and Salt Lake County followed with 11.
The 280 fatalities statewide are the highest since there were 299 in 2007, according to the Zero Fatalities report. The number of fatalities has risen every year since the 10-year low of 217 in 2012.
UDOT Director Carlos Braceras said he was upset with the number of lives lost on the state’s roadways in 2016.
“I’m outraged that we’re losing that many lives on Utah’s roadways when we don’t have to,” he said. “This increase that we’ve seen over the last four years — I’m frustrated, frankly.”
According to Braceras, as many as 94 percent of traffic fatalities are the result of human error. In 2016, the majority of fatal accidents were the result of a combination of five factors: unrestrained occupants, drug or alcohol impaired, aggressive, distracted and drowsy driving.
The majority of fatal crashes in the state occurred in favorable driving conditions, with 87 percent during clear or cloudy weather conditions and 84 percent on dry roads.
“Those five behaviors, if we could eliminate those five behaviors, we’d be talking about a much smaller number here today and you would see much fewer deaths on Utah roads,” Braceras said.
Utah Highway Patrol Col. Michael Rapich said while speed was identified as the cause of 62 fatal accidents in 2016, the ramifications of driving too fast for road conditions extends beyond that figure.
“Keep in mind that those are simply, after analysis of the crash, where speed was the single biggest factor in that crash,” Rapich said. “Speed contributes to any fatal crash.”
Braceras said roads in Utah are the safest they’ve ever been, despite the human error leading to rising fatalities.
Every new UDOT construction or maintenance project is built to the current national safety standard, according to Braceras. Projects have upgraded barriers; increased friction of the road surface to prevent slipping; improved sightlines so drivers can avoid hazards and installed new signage, striping and traffic signals.
There were three fatalities on state Route 36, three fatalities on state Route 73 and 16 fatalities on Interstate 80 in Tooele County last year.
For its part, the Department of Public Safety is focused on hot spots — areas where serious or fatal accidents are occurring more frequently. Rapich said extra troopers are stationed in hot spots during peak travel times to ensure people are slowing down and avoiding unsafe driving practices.
Extra troopers are also on shift during major weather events, such as winter storms, according to Rapich. Troopers don’t work traffic enforcement in those conditions but focus on assisting drivers who have left the roadway and alerting other drivers to road hazards, he said.
“If it’s snowing, the only reason why you will see red and blue lights on the side of the freeway is because there’s a hazard there,” Rapich said.
Braceras said the Zero Fatalities program, which focuses on public outreach to reduce the number of accidents caused by human error, will focus on educating young drivers. The program has a goal of being invited to every high school in Utah while also reaching out to experienced drivers by reminding them of safe driving habits.
“We are constantly looking at different ways to help people understand that when you get behind the wheel of a car, that is probably the single-most important thing you do every day,” Braceras said. “And how many of us think that when we get behind the wheel? Are we thinking about what we need to do when we arrive at our destination or how many extra activities we’re going to fit in that day?”
He added, “Or are we thinking about, ‘Now I’m behind the wheel of a car; I’m responsible for myself, those that are with me in the car, as well as every single one of the people on the roadway.’”
In 2016, there were 186 days without a traffic fatality.