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Utah Highway Patrol to crack down on distracted driving over weekend

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Highway Patrol (UHP), along with 20 other agencies, will crack down on distracted driving this week through a special enforcement effort that will last until Monday morning. The agency will fill an extra 127 overtime shifts solely focused on distracted driving, paying officers through a federal grant. 

Officers will patrol in marked cars, unmarked vehicles and motorcycles on both freeways and side streets throughout Salt Lake and Utah counties. 

The move comes as a response to nearly 5,000 crashes in Utah during 2020 that were directly attributed to distracted driving, according to the UHP. When it comes to individual circumstances, Lt. Wade Breur said he’s seen it all. 

“Like balancing their whole meal in front of them,” Breur told KSL.com. “One time I saw an individual using a bowl of cereal, like balancing it between their knees while driving down the road, eating it while they’re steering with their knees with this bowl of cereal in front of them.”

Of the 4,927 crashes in 2020 caused by distracted driving, 19 resulted in death. In 2021, the agency reported 1,115 crashes so far with one fatality. 

The main culprit: Texting while driving 

Although drivers become distracted from almost anything, Breur said using a cellphone — specifically, texting while driving — is the number one distraction. In preparation for the special enforcement weekend, he said he counted the number the distracted drivers he saw on Monday while driving from Murray to Point of the Moutain. 

He counted a total of seven. 

The giveaway? Many of the drivers had their arms near their waists with their heads down while driving — clearly looking at something in their hands, he said. 

Of the nearly 5,000 distracted driving crashes reported in 2020, about 32% were teen drivers. Of those, 32% of the drivers were distracted by their cellphone. 

UHP Col. Michael Rapich said this may be because drivers get overly confident in their abilities to text while driving if they do it successfully once.

“‘It’s OK. I did it this time. I did it next time, and there’s no problems,'” he said drivers tell themselves. “Until there is. And when there is, it’s horrible. And bad things happen, destructive things happen and people get hurt violently.”

Distracted driving reports soar amid COVID-19

Although distracted driving has been a growing problem over the last decade, researchers warn it may be getting worse as more Americans are staying at home and working online. 

As millions of driving adults spend hours online in video conferences and classes, many report struggling to maintain concentration. As a result, they tend to zone out — causing experts to fear this cognitive overload may be a cause in the recent surge of roadway deaths in 2020. 

A new study by Root Insurance found 54% of surveyed adults report having trouble concentrating on the road after signing off a video call. Around 64% of respondents said they check their phones while behind the wheel, with another 53% reporting they do this within the first 15 minutes of driving. 

“The problem with distraction is huge and it’s not just checking email or texting,” Russ Rader, an official with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told NBC News. “There’s the risk of cognitive distraction, looking at the road while your thoughts are elsewhere. That zoning out may mean you don’t notice a dangerous situation soon enough to react.”