SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Wade Breur has seen just about everything when it comes to distracted drivers, from people putting on makeup to eating while driving.
"Like balancing their whole meal in front of them. One time I saw an individual using a bowl of cereal, like balancing it between their knees while driving down the road, eating it while they're steering with their knees with this bowl of cereal in front of them," he said.
Recently, he even pulled over a man who was driving his company vehicle while participating on a video conference call with his employer.
"Totally appropriate in this time (of COVID-19 health restrictions). But not while operating a vehicle," Breur said of the video conferencing. "He was surprised to hear it was not legal to do this."
But the No. 1 way drivers are being distracted on the road is by using their cellphones, according to the UHP. Specifically texting while driving.
In preparation of the upcoming summer travel season, the UHP and 20 other agencies will be conducting a special distracted driving enforcement effort statewide from today through Monday morning, with the main focus being in Salt Lake and Utah counties.
Officers will be working an extra 127 overtime shifts focusing solely on distracted drivers, thanks to a federal grant.
Police in marked patrol cars, unmarked vehicles, and motorcycles will be patrolling both the freeways and side streets.
On Thursday, UHP troopers alone stopped 180 vehicles and cited 27 drivers. A rundown on how many motorists were stopped by all participating agencies is expected to be released Monday.
In 2020, there were 4,927 crashes in Utah directly attributed to distracted driving, according to the UHP. Those crashes also resulted in 19 deaths and nearly 1,800 injuries.
So far in 2021 — from Jan. 1 through Thursday, April 8 — there have been 1,115 distracted driving crashes with one fatality. In a survey conducted by the Utah Department of Public Safety and Utah Department of Transportation, 24% of Utahns admitted to texting while driving within the past 30 days.
In preparation for Thursday's enforcement kickoff, Breur said he counted the number of distracted drivers he could see on Monday while driving home from Murray to Point of the Mountain. He counted a total of seven. Many of those drivers, he said, were holding their arms near their waists with their heads down, obviously looking at something in their hands.
UHP Col. Michael Rapich said over the past five years, there have been 90 deaths directly attributed to distracted driving in Utah — and those are only the ones that could be proven as a distracted driving incident.
"We actually can't capture the entire scope of the problem," he admitted. "The reality is the problem is much bigger than we know."
Rapich said many people will think because they've done it once, they can do it safely again.
"'It's OK. I did it this time. I did it next time, and there's no problems.' Until there is," he said drivers will often tell themselves. "And when there is, it's horrible. And bad things happen, destructive things happen and people get hurt violently."
According to UHP statistics, of the nearly 5,000 distracted driving crashes recorded in 2020, nearly 32% were committed by teen drivers. Nationally, drivers ages 15 to 19 account for the largest proportion of drivers involved in fatal distracted driving crashes.
In 32% of those crashes statewide, the at-fault driver was distracted by a cellphone, 25% were distracted by something else inside their vehicle, and 5% were distracted by food or a drink, according to the UHP.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that nearly 9% of all traffic fatalities in the United States in 2019 were the result of distracted driving, which is a 10% increase from the year before. In 2019, 566 pedestrians or bicyclists were killed in a crash involving a distracted driver, the administration reported.