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Amid the swerving and near misses of daily driving, the conventional view among Utahns is that their fellow motorists here are awful. Some new data suggest that perception may not be far from the truth.
A Salt Lake Tribune analysis of court records for fiscal 2013 shows that Utah law officers wrote one traffic ticket for every five drivers in the state more than 427,000 tickets for just under 2 million licensed drivers.
"We've all heard the stories that Utah has bad drivers. And every time something happens, it reinforces that notion," says Rolayne Fairclough, spokeswoman for the AAA travel services company. Referring to the 1-in-5 odds of getting a ticket, she allowed that it might bolster the conventional wisdom. "But most people in Utah already likely had their minds made up that there are plenty of bad drivers here."
Some of those 427,000-plus citations went to out-of-staters, but Utahns themselves account for most of the 1,170 moving-violation tickets issued every day statewide. And that figure doesn't include drivers who get pulled over but get off with only warnings generally about half those pulled over, according to Sgt. Todd Royce, spokesman for the Utah Highway Patrol.
Since records show the Highway Patrol by itself wrote 101,872 tickets in fiscal 2013, that suggests how scary the roads may be. But other data suggest Utahns are improving and might be in line with national averages.
Tickets issued in the Beehive State "may show that law enforcement takes traffic violations seriously. It may give pause to those who think they won't get a ticket" and prompt them to drive more safely, said Fairclough. "Tickets also lead to an increase in insurance rates, so people pay more than just the amount that the ticket costs."
The analysis also indicates that the chances of getting tickets are much higher in some jurisdictions than others. Drivers may want to be especially careful around such places as Mantua (a town between Brigham City and Logan), Springdale (near Zion National Park) and other possible "speed traps."
Ups and downs • The Tribune obtained data from the Utah State Courts office for traffic tickets filed with district and justice courts from July 1, 2012, to June 30, 2013. The numbers identify 427,091 moving-violation tickets, issued by 204 law-enforcement agencies.
Despite that tally, there are indications that Utah drivers are improving.
Records during the past 20 years show crashes and fatalities are falling, said Royce, "except that this year there has been an uptick that we are trying to solve."
June, for example, marked the deadliest month on Utah highways in nearly a decade, with 36 fatalities.
John Gleason, spokesman for the Utah Department of Transportation, said one reason for the jump is that more accidents than usual this year had multiple fatalities. "For example, over the July Fourth weekend, we had nine fatalities from just two crashes."
But fatalities between 2000 and 2013 in the state were down 41 percent, from 373 annually to 220, while Utah's population and number of miles traveled grew.
A 2013 study by Allstate Insurance said drivers in Salt Lake City and West Valley City combined because they share many ZIP codes ranked 63rd among the nation's 200 largest cities, leaping nine spots from the previous year. The study was based on accident claims filed with that company.
The Allstate report said a typical driver in the two Utah cities will be involved in a crash every 10 years, which is essentially the same as the national average.
Pet peeves • Ticket data provided by the courts did not list specific violations, but Fairclough and Royce say they know the major culprits.
"Inappropriate speeds and distracted driving are the worst," Fairclough said.
These violations range from driving too slowly in the "fast lane" to speeding elsewhere, she added.
And, even with a new law making it easier to ticket anyone using a cellphone or texting while driving, "you still see a lot of people driving while on their cellphones."
"There is a Western individualist stubborn streak here," she said, "that sometimes hinders our driving," including not yielding or matching the speed of traffic.
Royce said common complaints from drivers and officers are people not signaling, driving slowly in the left passing lane, following too closely and not wearing seat belts.
"It often depends on your own point of view," he said. "If you are driving slowly in the left-hand lane, you complain about people following too closely. But if you are trying to pass and someone is impeding traffic, you complain about people driving slowly in the left-hand lane."
Officers' main complaints, he said, center on actions or inactions such as not buckling up that cause fatalities or serious injuries that could have been avoided.
Big ticketers • The Utah Highway Patrol wrote more tickets than any other agency about a quarter of the total.
Other prolific citation-writers are Salt Lake City police, 37,806; Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office/Unified police, 26,063; West Valley City police, 17,149; and Sandy police, 15,622.
Those numbers make sense because of the large populations in those jurisdictions.
There are some less-conventional sources of tickets, too. State port-of-entry officers wrote 3,593; Utah Transit police issued 224; Animal-control officers wrote 27 and Granite School District handed out 10.
But when figuring out how many tickets agencies wrote per resident, some sparsely populated areas stand out and suggest possible "speed traps" where motorists may want to be especially careful.
Speed traps? • Mantua, population 687, issued 1,710 tickets in fiscal 2013. That's an average 2.49 per resident. It means the police department, with a full-time chief and three part-time officers, wrote just under five tickets a day.
Police Chief Mike Johnson insists his town is not a "speed trap," because that suggests "changing a speed limit prior to the area to catch people unaware. But we are seven miles into a speed zone that starts when people leave the freeway [in Brigham City] and continues all the way up" Sardine Canyon to Cache Valley.
"There's no trap here. And we've made it a policy to give people plenty of leeway on enforcement," he said.
"We enforce laws the same way state troopers here do. It would help if people just slow down."
And Johnson makes a vow.
"I promise you if you don't speed, you won't get a ticket here."
Springdale, population 529, wrote 593 tickets or 1.12 per resident. In 2013, Springdale's city manager and police chief were charged (but later acquitted) for third-degree felony counts related to traffic tickets.
Allegations said the two presided over the practice of ticketing foreign tourists visiting nearby Zion National Park, demanding cash and skirting the court system.
Sixth District Judge Wallace Lee said he couldn't find any evidence that anyone in the town's leadership knew the practice was illegal and dismissed the charges against the pair.
Another tourist-attraction gateway, tiny Big Water near Lake Powell, wrote an average 1.11 tickets for each of its 475 residents.
Besides Mantua, Sprindale and Big Water, no other Utah city or town wrote an average of more than one ticket per resident during the year. In fact, no others wrote more than an average of a half a ticket per resident.