New Utah Foundation Report Looks at Progress, Challenges for Traffic Safety

Seat belts save lives, and Utah has now made it easier to enforce the law requiring their use. 

Driving while talking on mobile phones puts lives at risk, even when drivers can keep both hands on the wheel while talking. These are among the conclusions of a new research report from Utah Foundation, Utah in the Fast Lane: An Analysis of Driving and Traffic Safety.

While anecdotal evidence criticizes Utah drivers as rude or inattentive, one analysis of insurance data ranks them second-best in the country, behind Vermont. Another survey ranks drivers in Salt Lake City 67th best out of the 200 largest American cities, while West Valley is 80th based on the average time between accidents.

“Utah has optimal laws on impaired driving, booster seat use and seat belt enforcement,” says Utah Foundation Research Analyst Melissa Proctor. “But we need work on teen driving, motorcycle helmets and distracted driving.”

The key findings highlighted in the report include:

  • The Utah Legislature made the state’s seatbelt law enforceable as a primary offense; the law will take effect in May 2015.    
  • Modifying Utah’s current helmet law to cover all riders would likely reduce fatalities.
  • Utah’s current restrictions on teen driving do not include the following standards as recommended by national safety experts:
    • Nighttime driving restriction from 9pm to 5am;
    • Passenger limitation for one year;
    • Minimum 16 years of age for learners’ permits;
    • Restricted licenses until 18.
  • Utah’s drunk driving rates continue to decrease; this may be credited to Utah’s strict laws and policies.
  • Studies show that hands-free calls while driving cause an impairment equivalent to hand-held calls.
  • Research shows that driving while talking on a cellphone is as hazardous as driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.08%, the legal threshold for drunk driving.

Proctor’s research shows the change from secondary enforcement will likely result in increased seat belt use and lives saved.  States like Washington, California and Oregon that have had primary seat belt laws the longest also have the highest rate of seat belt use, around 97%.  Currently, Utah has only an 83% rate.  New Hampshire, the only state without a seat belt law, has the lowest rate at 72%.

Nationwide, drunk driving is involved in about one-third of all traffic deaths, but in Utah, fewer than 10% of drivers in fatal crashes tested positive for alcohol. “While Utah has a large number of residents who don’t drink,” Proctor says, “optimal impaired driving laws and strict enforcement have reduced the number of alcohol-related fatalities in the state.”

“We need some work on our teen driving laws,” Proctor noted. “The most important provision would be a longer nighttime driving restriction.  Today, it’s midnight to 5 a.m., but studies show most accidents with teen drivers occur between 9 p.m. and midnight.”

Distracted driving – primarily because of mobile phone use – is another key element of the report. Citing work done by Dr. David Strayer at the University of Utah and others, the report finds danger in both hands-free cellphone use and hand-held cellphones. Both require the driver to engage cognitively in the conversation and lose focus on the driving environment. Driving while talking on a mobile phone impairs the driver’s performance to the same extent as driving with a blood alcohol content of .08%.

The report also looks back at past Utah Foundation research on driving safety.  A 1955 report urged Utah to improve driver education in its public schools.  Another, in 1983, reported on the work of a commission appointed by Utah’s governor to study the state’s growing drunk driving problem. That was the year Utah became the first state to reduce its legal blood alcohol limit to .08%.

The full report is available on the Utah Foundation website at