SALT LAKE CITY — Sixteen Utah Highway Patrol troopers have been hit while helping motorists on the side of the road since the start of 2013, and UHP is trying to figure out how to stop the count from rising.
UHP is frustrated and fears a trooper may die if the alarming trend continues, after a total of 12 troopers hit in 2012.
"Is there something we can legislatively do? Is there something we need to encourage the public to do?" Lt. Lee Perry asked.
Troopers have told Utahns repeatedly to slow down when approaching a crash scene, especially in a snow storm. But it's clearly not working: troopers keep getting hit. Slow down and move over — that's the law when drivers approach an officer at the side of the road.
"They put themselves in danger so that other people can be safe," said Col. Daniel Fuhr with the Utah Highway Patrol.
At least 16 drivers this year did not slow down or move over enough, though, and they ran into troopers. Perry was hit a month ago, and the crash injured his knee. When he went back out on the road to work the snowstorm Saturday night, he says he was gun shy.
"It's a little ... almost post-traumatic, because I'm concerned about getting hit again," he said.
There is at least one solid plan in the works to solve the problem. Perry said troopers will soon start to pack signs that read "Slow Down: Crash Ahead." They will carry the fold-up signs in the trunks of their cruisers, and attach them to the outside with magnets when they roll up on a crash.
They put themselves in danger so that other people can be safe.
–Col. Daniel Fuhr
Perry says the UHP has ordered 350, in a high-visibility pink.
"We would position a trooper car back from the scene of the crash, in a place that's got a longer visibility," Perry said.
Perry is also a state representative, and said legislators are talking about the problem this session, but probably could not look at any possible legislation until interim committee meetings later in the year.
"We're looking for all possible options out there," he said.
He said lawmakers may discuss a weather-related variable speed limit during bad storms. For example, if snow starts to pile up on the interstate during rush hour, the overhead signs could alert motorists to a reduced speed limit of 50 mph for the duration of the storm. But that could be controversial.
"Who decides what that emergency speed would be? And, at what point do you decide to put that into effect?" Perry asked.
At least five states currently use weather-related variable speed limits. In Washington state, a University of Washington study found that the system reduced the average vehicle speed by up to 13 percent, and overall safety improved.
The UHP said personal responsibility remains the quickest solution. Drive cautiously, and if you're in a crash, try to get your car out of the way.
"If we don't have to respond to the roadway, we're not in danger," Fuhr said. "If the four wheels are drivable, and they can move, we're going to get it off the roadway."
Fuhr said in January alone, the UHP called out troopers for 464 extra shifts. They faced a 56-percent surge in crashes from the previous year — 3,000 in all — and helped more than 7300 motorists in need.
"We're really flooding the roadways so we can respond quicker to incidents, and it's putting out troopers in harms way," Fuhr said.