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Taylorsville • While Utah highway deaths have skyrocketed by 37 percent so far this year, officials say that new 70-mph speed limits on urban freeways are not to blame.

Instead, Utah Department of Transportation officials said Friday the real fault lies with the high number of Utahns who do not wear seat belts.

Jason Davis, UDOT chief of operations, told the state Transportation Commission that Utah has had 52 road deaths so far this year, compared to 38 at the same time last year.

And last year was one of the deadliest in recent years, with 256 total road fatalities, compared to 220 in 2013 and 217 in 2012.

Davis said UDOT is constantly asked if the new 70-mph speed limit, put in place in December, is at fault. So he had officials do some calculations.

He said they found that only four fatalities this year "were on roads posted at 70 mph or higher."

More fatalities — six — actually occurred on roads posted at 25 mph or less.

"A lot of these fatalities are happening on lower-speed roads," he said. "In fact, the largest percentage of fatal crashes happen on 40 mph posted speed limits."

Davis said a bigger reason that fatalities are up is that many Utah motorists do not wear seat belts.

About 60 percent of people killed so far this year were not properly restrained. Historically, he said, about half the people killed on Utah highways were unbuckled.

"The numbers are higher. It's fairly shocking," Davis said.

That is happening despite advertising campaigns and publicity about a just-passed law that will make enforcing seat-belt laws easier.

Carlos Braceras, executive director of UDOT, said studies show that about 17 percent of Utahns do not buckle up — but they make up a clear majority of highway deaths.

Davis said, "If nothing else, people should be able to look at these numbers and say the reason we should wear our seat belt is not necessarily [for] driving 70 mph on an interstate, [an accident] can happen anywhere at anytime. Always wear your seat belt."

The Legislature this year passed HB79 to make failure to wear a seat belt a primary offense, meaning officers can stop and cite people directly for the lapse. Currently, Utah has a "secondary" law for those 18 and older, allowing a ticket only when an officer stops a vehicle for another reason.

The new law takes effect May 12. Rep. Lee Perry, a Highway Patrol lieutenant, sponsored HB79, saying he was tired of investigating fatal accidents where seat belts could have easily prevented deaths. Similar bills had failed for years, as many lawmakers argued that it would interfere too much with personal freedom.

UDOT has noted that states that pass similar laws usually see their seat-belt use increase significantly. For example, after Utah passed a booster-seat law in 2008, the state's usage rate jumped 46 percent.

The new seat-belt law is aimed mostly at education. 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.