‘It changes their lives forever’; Officers reflect on responding to fatalities as ‘100 Deadliest Days’ begins

This March 2020 file photo shows a single-vehicle rollover on state Route 18 that killed the driver, Washington County, Utah, March 31, 2020 | Photo courtesy of the Utah Highway Patrol, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A recent uptick in the number of fatal crashes on Utah’s roads signals that the Beehive State is already on a deadly path even before the start of the annual span of time known as “100 Deadliest Days of Summer” begins.

In this May 2020 file photo, emergency medical crews tend to injured couple in Nissan Titan following crash on northbound Interstate 15 near mile marker 3 north of Mesquite, Nevada, in Mohave County, Ariz., May 13, 2020 | File photo courtesy of Beaver Dam/Littlefield Fire and Rescue, St. George News

The 100 Deadliest Days of Summer is a three-month period when more people are killed in crashes than during any other period of the year, incidents that many law enforcement officers say represent one of the most difficult parts of the job.

Historically, fatal crashes nearly double in the summer compared to the rest of the year, and as such, the 100 Deadliest Days are designated as the span between Memorial Day and Labor Day, according to Zero Fatalities Utah.

With gas prices at an all-time low, there may be more people on the roads for summer vacations and other plans.

Utah Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Nick Street told St. George News that more than 30 agencies across the state have expanded enforcement efforts by adding nearly 190 extra shifts, with troopers, deputies and officers joining forces to address the most common causes of fatal crashes over the summer months: speed, seat belt use, distracted driving and impaired driving.

Law enforcement agencies statewide have also implemented increased DUI enforcement.

Last year during the 100 Deadliest Days, 62 people died on Utah roads, down from 102 in 2018, which was also down from the year before.

This January 2020 file photo shows a fatal crash that killed a Santa Clara woman on state Route 18 near mile marker 15 in Washington County, Utah, Jan. 14, 2020 | Photo courtesy of the Utah Highway patrol, St. George News,

This year, Street said even before the deadliest days have begun, “it is already deadlier.” He added that while the number of crashes has dropped by half, fatalities have increased; specifically, 86 people have died in crashes so far this year, up from 78 last year during the same period.

He also said that UHP isn’t sure what to expect in terms of fatalities over the next three months. Using the last two months as an example, he said, logic would have it that with fewer cars on the road as a result of travel restrictions resulting from COVID-19, there should have been fewer fatalities.

However, that’s not the case, Street said.

“In fact, we are seeing the exact opposite.”

Sunday was particularly deadly across the state as five people were killed in motor vehicle accidents on that day alone.

Washington City Police Chief Jason Williams said that one of the most disturbing aspects of responding to crashes involving significant injury or death is that any number of factors could have avoided catastrophe.

Particularly with fatal crashes, he said, many thoughts go through an officer’s mind, such as, “if they had only slowed down or had their seat belt on – they would have walked away from this.”

Williams also said that at the end of the day, the statistics aren’t just numbers – they are people who leave behind grieving family members and friends.

Hurricane Police Officer Ken Thompson said notifying loved ones after a fatal crash is “one of the most difficult aspects of the job.” He said it’s heartbreaking to see what that news does to a family.

“It changes their lives forever,” Thompson said.

One factor that has played a significant role in a number of recent fatal crashes, and one that Iron County Sheriff’s Lt. Del Schlosser said they are seeing more often is the lack of seat belt use. He said their department has also seen an uptick in the number of fatal crashes reported over the last few months.

This April 2020 file photo shows Aston Martin that was destroyed in fatal crash on state Route 201 that left one man dead, Salt Lake County, Utah, April 11, 2020 | File photo courtesy of the Utah Highway patrol, St. George News,

Schlosser said that seat belts are designed to be used with the seat in an upright position, as they are not as effective if the seat is reclined, and can be even more dangerous if the shoulder strap is moved.

Having occupants restrained also has the benefit of protecting others in the vehicle, he said, as it keeps them from becoming a moving projectile in the vehicle.

Without proper use, he said, seat belts “will not keep someone in the vehicle in a rollover or prevent them from hitting an object in the car that can kill them.”

As law enforcement officers continue their efforts toward a goal of zero fatalities on Utah’s roadways, Street said it “just comes back to the basics.” He urged drivers to slow down, pay attention to the roadway and wear their seat belts – and for motorcyclists, wear a helmet.

Street also reminded those who feel impaired to not drive “under any circumstances — which means never.”

St. George Police Officer Tiffany Atkin shared similar comments and asked drivers to “be patient, slow down and cut the distractions in the vehicle,” so that travelers can get to where they are going alive.

With the Virgin River Gorge being an area of particular concern for Southern Utah drivers, Arizona Department of Public Safety Trooper Thomas Callister said drivers need to remember they are not the only ones on the roadway and that everyone has a responsibility to keep the highways safe.

“We are all on the road together, so let’s make sure we are safe,” he said, thereby making sure everyone else is safe as well.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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