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Two new reports suggest that Utah drivers and congestion may not be all that bad at least compared to others.
For example, the Salt Lake City area is the eighth-least congested among 53 large cities in the United States and ninth-least congested among 146 large cities worldwide studied by TomTom, a manufacturer of electronic GPS route-finding devices, according to a study it released Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Utah Foundation, a nonprofit that conducts research on ways to improve the state's economy, released a separate study looking at how safe Utah drivers are based on research from several other organizations.
It noted that CarInsuranceComparison.com last year ranked Utah drivers as second best in the nation. On the other end of the spectrum, Insure.com ranked them as the 10th rudest. And Allstate insurance gave Salt Lake City drivers middle-of-the-road marks as No. 67 safest out of 200 large cities.
"It really depends on what the criteria for safety are" in the various reports, said Utah Foundation research analyst Melissa Proctor. She said the study that ranked Utahns as second best leaned heavily on its low drunken driving and fatality rates, while the Allstate study giving them mediocre grades looked at how often they crash.
Crowding on Salt Lake City-area roads is relatively low, according to the TomTom study, with a "congestion level" of 15 percent. That means travel times generally take 15 percent longer than in free-flow situations.
In comparison, Los Angeles has a congestion level of 39 percent the most congested in the country followed by San Francisco at 34 percent, Honolulu at 32 percent and New York City at 31 percent.
Congestion in the Salt Lake City area increased by 1 percentage point last year. The typical delay for a 30-minute drive at peak times was 13 minutes in 2014. For a driver with a 30-minute commute, the typical delay per year was 52 hours.
Meanwhile, the Utah Foundation study praised state legislators for generally moving in the right direction with laws over time to improve highway safety.
"Utah has optimal laws on impaired driving, booster-seat use and seat-belt enforcement" after a new, tougher seat-belt law just passed, Proctor said. "But we need work on teen driving, motorcycle helmets and distracted driving" especially outlawing use of cellphones while driving.
The study and law-enforcement officers who helped introduce it is especially excited about the new seat-belt law, HB79, which takes effect May 12.
It allows officers to stop and directly cite people drivers or passengers for failure to buckle up. Currently, Utah has a "secondary" law for those 18 and older. A $45 ticket can be issued only when an officer stops a vehicle for another reason.
"It will save lives," said Salt Lake City Police Deputy Chief Mike Brown. Proctor said states with such laws have much higher use of seat belts, and she expects to see Utah's current usage rate of 83 percent rise over time.
After Utah passed a booster-seat law in 2008, the state's usage rate jumped 46 percent, Proctor said. "Despite extensive public campaigns in support of booster-seat usage before the legislation, it was the legislation that seems to have been the key in improving usage."
Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, sponsor of the seat-belt bill and a Utah Highway Patrol lieutenant, said officers can give only a warning the first time they stop violators for not wearing a seat belt. They may give a citation for a second offense, but motorists can avoid fines by taking an online safety course to clear that ticket.
Perry said those provisions show the law is mostly about education, rather than raising revenue.
The Utah Foundation report called for legislators to require motorcycle-helmet use. Such legislation has been introduced in past years, but usually attracts little support.
The foundation also suggested outlawing talking on cellphones while driving, noting that University of Utah studies show the activity impairs driving as much as being drunk even if hands-free phones are used.
The study also said Utah has not adopted several restrictions on teen driving recommended by national safety groups.
These include banning teen driving from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. Utah bars it between midnight and 5 a.m., but Proctor said most teen-involved nighttime accidents occur between 9 p.m. and midnight.
Another recommendation is prohibiting new teen drivers from having passengers in their car for a full year. Utah currently bans that only for six months.
The Utah Foundation report also said that Utah's drunken-driving rates continue to decline. While some of that may be due to lower drinking rates because of Utah's large Mormon population, Proctor credits much of this trend to the state's strict laws and enforcement.