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Speed and distracted driving blamed for rise in deadly highway crashes in Utah

Utah Department of Transportation technicians Kurt O’Neal, left, and Colby Larsen leave a UDOT press conference in Murray to go pick up windstorm debris in the Rose Park neighborhood of Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. O’Neal was sitting in the driver’s seat of a UDOT truck as Larsen was picking up trash behind the truck on the side of I-15 this summer when another vehicle struck their truck, narrowly missing Larsen.

(Kristin Murphy, KSL)



MURRAY — Summer is considered by Utah law enforcement to be the “100 deadliest days” for drivers, and this year was among the worst in recent memory.

The Utah Department of Transportation reported Wednesday that 102 people lost their lives from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and that deaths are up 20% on state roads between Jan. 1 and Sept. 7.

UDOT technicians Colby Larsen and Kurt O’Neal count themselves among the fortunate ones who survived a harrowing experience that involved being in one of more than 15,000 crashes that occurred on highways during the 109-day summer driving period. They were cleaning up debris on Aug. 10 along the 7200 South northbound on-ramp to I-15 when a driver plowed into their work truck.

“We were picking up a large piece of metal that was impeding oncoming traffic,” Larsen said. “I was picking up the piece of litter and I looked behind me and I noticed that someone was over the shoulder driving toward us. That’s kind of common, but they usually correct in time and go around us and give us enough room to work.

“But I still happened to look behind me that day and noticed that she was completely, almost dead center inside of our shoulder, so I started just on instinct to run as fast as I possibly could and ended up at the very back end of our truck and was flush against a fence.”

The driver then overcorrected and crashed directly into the driver’s side of the work vehicle in which O’Neal was seated behind the wheel.

“I wasn’t really looking or anything. I had no idea what was coming, I just got hit,” he said. “She drifted most of the way on the shoulder and then cranked over so that right side of her car hit the back left end of our truck, and then just ‘can-opened’ that whole side.”

The jolt from the impact has left him with pain and stiffness that continues weeks later, he said. “I went to get checked out that day. It’s been a handful of weeks and everywhere from the base of my neck to my lower back — that all hurts.”

Both men believe the incident shows how important it is for drivers to always give their undivided attention to the task of driving when they get behind the wheel.

“People get complacent. You can’t get complacent when you’re driving 70 miles an hour,” O’Neal said. “When I look in my blind spot, I never looked for more than a couple of seconds (because) I’m always trying to look ahead. People need to be more aware of where they’re headed.”

“(Drivers) are coming over the (lane) line all the time,” he added. “People just need to focus a little more and not be complacent when they drive around.”

“It’s important to pay attention to all of your surroundings, not just what’s in front of you,” Larsen said. “That’s a very important thing. People are always distracted driving and it’s getting worse and worse.”

Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Nicholas Street talks about the 100 deadliest days for traffic fatalities, between Memorial Day and Labor Day, during a press conference at the Utah Department of Transportation's Murray Maintenance Shed in Murray on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020.
Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Nicholas Street talks about the 100 deadliest days for traffic fatalities, between Memorial Day and Labor Day, during a press conference at the Utah Department of Transportation's Murray Maintenance Shed in Murray on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, KSL)

He said the incident has left him a lot more anxious when he is working around I-15, “with cars whizzing by my head at 80 to 85 miles an hour.” He hopes that drivers can begin to employ better judgment on the roads to avoid potentially tragic crashes that could cost someone else or the drivers themselves their lives.

Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Nicholas Street said excessive speed and distracted driving are among the most prevalent factors in many roadway crashes.

“When you’re above the posted speed limit, you’re limiting your reaction time — you don’t give yourself enough time to react,” he said. “When you’re following too closely to traffic in front of you, you’re also limiting your reaction time. As they react, you don’t give yourself much time to react.”

He noted that traveling at freeway speeds can mean drivers are covering the length of a football field in just a second or two, so stepping off the gas pedal can make a huge difference in the potential for a fatal crash.


When you’re above the posted speed limit, you’re limiting your reaction time — you don’t give yourself enough time to react.

–Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Nicholas Street


“Give yourself that time and distance to react by driving at or below the posted speed limit and well below the posted speed limit in times where maybe you would overdrive your headlights at night where the roads are not well lit,” he said. “At times where there might be inclement weather, definitely slow down well below the posted speed limit for those issues.”

UDOT data indicated that Utah has seen approximately 250 deaths annually on state roadways over the past decade. Those numbers can be reduced if motorists make a concerted effort to operate more safely when they get out on the road.

“If we focus on three things — buckling up, if we focus on not speeding and if we focus on on putting away the distractions, then you’re going to have a much better chance of getting to where you’re going safely,” said UDOT spokesman John Gleason. “With so much happening in the world right now, there’s a lot that’s out of our control. These behaviors are things that we can all control. If we make wise decisions behind the wheel, then you’re gonna get to where you’re going safely.”

Jasen Lee

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