Fireworks, hot dogs and death on the highway: the hallmarks of Independence Day in Utah.
The Fourth of July weekend is historically the deadliest in the state, at least as far back as 1996, the oldest readily available Utah Highway Patrol statistics. It and Labor Day stand alone among the holidays as the only ones that have never passed without a death since then, and America's birthday takes the lead with a total of 52. Most of the other holiday weekend fatality totals fall into the 20s and 30s for the same time period.
But the Utah Highway Patrol wants to put a stop to the long holiday weekend's lethal track record.
"We want zero [deaths]. That is our goal. If we have one, two or three fatalities, that's one, two or three too many," said UHP Cpl. Todd Johnson.
Troopers will begin a DUI blitz in Salt Lake County beginning 9 p.m. Wednesday. Throughout the rest of the state, troopers also will start increasing their seat belt safety and speeding enforcement that night, and keep it going through Sunday.
The troopers specifically assigned to commercial vehicle enforcement including semitrailers also will be in crackdown-mode throughout the four-day stretch to make sure the bigger vehicles meet inspection.
And this time, the UHP is mapping out their patrol and blitz locations based on ticketing and crash data from previous Fourth of Julys. It's a numbers-driven strategy of finding where the problem spots are throughout the holiday weekends, historically, and positioning troopers accordingly.
It is an approach they first tried on Memorial Day weekend. Three people died in two crashes, but Johnson felt the strategy made an impact and curbed the potential for more tragedy.
Troopers made 135 DUI stops that weekend compared to 85 in 2012. "The way we look at it, those 135 DUIs may have meant 135 potential crashes, and some possible fatalities were prevented," Johnson said at the time.
Johnson hopes the data strategy, one the UHP plans to use all year, will reinforce the improvements they have already made against the Fourth of July's reputation.
"The last couple of years, we've done fairly well. We stepped up our law enforcement efforts," Johnson said.
In 2012, UHP reported two fatalities on July Fourth, and there were three deaths in 2011. Though that is too many by Johnson's standards, the death tolls stand in stark contrast to totals of years past, which used to number seven, eight, nine, and even 12 as recently as 2008.
In fact, UHP successfully cut down on fatalities holiday-wide last year: preliminary numbers show only five people died during the long weekends of 2012. The average since 1996 for July Fourth, Pioneer Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years is 28 a year (UHP only started tracking Easter and Halloween in 2002).
The July Fourth improvements were characteristic of the progress UHP made curbing fatalities yearlong. The preliminary data showed fatalities dropped 11 percent from 2011 to 2012. Last year went down as one of Utah's safest in decades.
The Utah Department of Public Safety attributed the lower numbers to road improvements, education, enforcement and scheduling more overtime shifts to put more troopers on the highway during peak travel periods.
"It is a proven fact that the mere presence of officers reduces crime and crashes, and UHP administration has made the extra resources available to allow for more visibility to the public and faster responses to emergency situations," said UHP Lt. David Bennion in a statement from January.
Fourth of July fatalities on Utah Highways
1996 • 1
1997 • 7
1998 • 2
1999 • 5
2000 • 4
2001 • 2
2002 • 8
2003 • 4
2004 • 5
2005 • 9
2006 • 1
2007 • 3
2008 • 12
2009 • 1
2010 • 4
2011 • 3
2012 • 2
Total since 1996 • 52
Source: The Utah Highway Patrol