A look at impaired driving in Utah: Fatalities skyrocketing since 2019

Estimated read time: 2-3 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — This year is on pace to be the deadliest year on record for impaired driving in Utah. Already there have been 53 deaths in 2022 because of impaired driving, coming off a record year in 2021 of 158 people killed.

"Right now, there seems to be a spike in a lot of the dangerous statistics. One of those is wrong-way drivers, we had somebody killed (June 11) with somebody that didn't have their lights on," said Cpl. Brock Ernsten, Utah Highway Patrol.

Ernsten is a member of UHP's DUI squad, a group of specialized troopers who focus on stopping impaired drivers on Utah's roads. KSL-TV was given special access to ride-along with Ernsten to see firsthand what the DUI squad is facing on the roads every night, and on June 11, Ernsten was called to a multivehicle crash on I-15 that turned into a DUI investigation, a wrong-way driver crash, and he also made a DUI arrest.

Nights like this, with multiple DUI investigations, are sadly becoming typical for the DUI squad.

"We'll have a lot of impaired drivers that will be just a single vehicle involved and they'll crash, and sideswipe a wall or sideswipe another vehicle and there aren't injuries, but when there are injuries and especially children are involved and injured, that is very difficult."

Since 2019, impaired driving fatalities have skyrocketed.

Ernsten said he's seeing drivers push the limit with drugs and alcohol.

"I've noticed a lot lately that it's both, people have consumed alcohol and some sort of drug as well. I would say a high percentage of the impaired drivers lately have had a combination."

When it comes to spotting impaired drivers, Ernst said it's the little things, like drifting or aggressive driving, that tip him off.

"If I see somebody speeding, it seems the faster they're going, there is an increased likelihood or probability that they're impaired if they're going fast or aggressive. But you can also have the opposite where they're really driving slowly and not stopping in time or maybe they forgot to turn their lights on. Which anybody can forget to turn their headlights on but sometimes that can be an indicator that somebody is not quite mentally functioning."

Ernsten is pleading with Utah drivers to do better, to think ahead and put away the keys before they ever take that first drink.

"You have taxis. You have Uber, Lyft. There are just so many options."

UHP is in the process of adding more troopers to its DUI squad. They've also created a wrong-way task force to figure out the best way to stop those drivers from putting others at risk. In the meantime, Ernsten and the DUI squad will continue to do what they can to make sure everyone gets home safe.

"We all have friends and family driving on the roads, and we want our friends and family to be safe just like everyone else does."

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