This is an archived article that was published on in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Provo • Utah traffic accidents and fatalities are up this year, continuing to reverse what had been a long decline. Deaths are up 5 percent, and accidents have seen a 8.4 percent rise.

But officials say newly raised freeway speed limits are not to blame.

"I can say fairly confidently that higher speeds on the interstates are not contributing to the increase," Jason Davis, director of operations for the Utah Department of Transportation, said Friday.

"We're seeing increases on the lower-speed local collector roads and city streets," he said. Maps with dots for each death show that freeways are "not where the increase is happening at all. That gives us some confidence that the [speed-limit] changes we made are not going to cause an increase" in fatalities.

UDOT raised the limit to 70 mph on urban interstates last December. In May, it added more 80 mph speed limits in some rural areas, including on Interstate 84 east of Riverdale, Interstate 80 east of Echo Junction and on Interstate 70. The state has had 80 mph limits in some rural areas for years.

Raising limits attracted some controversy during this year's legislative session. The Utah Highway Patrol initially came out against the 70 mph zones in urban areas, saying it was not a wise move at a time when deaths were increasing, but later backed off and dropped its opposition.

Rolayne Fairclough, spokeswoman for the AAA travel services company, also argued that higher speeds would worsen crashes and lead to an increase in injuries.

But UDOT says speeds actually have not increased much with the higher limits, only 1-2 mph on average, and essentially legalized how fast drivers were already traveling. In fact UDOT maintains the changes improved safety by reducing speed differences between cars, which can lead to crashes.

Davis said the biggest contributing factors in fatal accidents are failure to wear seat belts and distracted driving, including the use of cellphones.

"We continue to see the lack of seat-belt use as a large contributor," he said. "If folks were belted in on some of those — not all of them — they would be walking away or going home that evening instead of having to stay in a hospital or worse."

The Legislature passed a tougher seat-belt law this year, which Davis said appears to be helping.

The new law, which took effect in May, makes failure to wear a seat belt a primary offense, meaning officers can stop and cite people for the lapse. Previously, Utah had a "secondary" law for those 18 and older. A $45 ticket could be issued under the old law only when an officer stopped a vehicle for another reason.

Davis said UDOT did a quick survey of seat-belt use in June after the new law took effect, and found that 87 percent of riders on Utah highways were belted in — up from 83 percent the previous fall. He said UDOT is doing its regular annual survey on seat-belt use this month.

"If more people are wearing seat belts and our fatal and serious injury accidents are still going up, just think how bad it would be if they weren't belted in," Davis said. "Those numbers would be quite a bit higher."

The number of serious accidents involving distracted driving seems to be on the rise, he said. State law was toughened two years ago to ban manipulating by hand a cellphone or any other portable electronic device while driving. That includes texting, dialing a phone or even changing music on a smartphone.

An attempt to go further — and ban cellphone use entirely while driving — died in the Legislature earlier this year.

Davis reported to the Utah Transportation Commission on Friday data about traffic deaths and serious injuries, including:

• Utah had 209 highway deaths this year through Sept. 30, compared to 195 in the same period last year. Of note, 2014 had the most highway deaths in recent years. They jumped 16 percent, reversing a trend in which fatalities had dropped 41 percent during the previous 13 years.

• The number of crashes in which a death occurred is 193 so far, up from 169 last year.

• Fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled is estimated at 0.99 so far this year, up from 0.9 in the same period last year.

• Serious injuries (besides deaths) through the end of July totaled 842, up from 810 in the same period in 2014.

• The number of all crashes through the end of July was 30,793, up from 28,401 in the same period in 2014 — an increase of 8.4 percent.