SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has the lowest DUI-related fatality rate in the nation due largely to a Utah Highway Patrol initiative the past year to crack down on drunken drivers.
But with the UHP shifting focus to another issue and local police forces struggling with manpower shortages, being No. 1 might not last.
In 2009, 16.4 percent of all traffic deaths in the state were alcohol-related, which, according to a report by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice presented to a legislative committee on Wednesday, ranks lowest in the country. The national average is 32.1 percent. Thirty-one people died in Utah in DUI crashes last year, three fewer than the year before.
Overall, the number of DUI arrests in the state dropped 2.4 percent, the report says. Of the arrests, 11,965 were men and 3,272 were women. About three-fourths of them were made on the Wasatch Front. While the number of men arrested remains constant, the number of women is on the rise. The UHP arrested more impaired drivers compared to the year before, while city and county police departments arrested fewer.
Mary Lou Emerson, director of the Utah Substance Abuse Advisory Council, said public awareness and prevention efforts may account for the decrease, but conceded that having fewer officers on patrol because of strapped budgets and other priorities could be a factor.
That concerns legislators on the Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee who help determine budgets for state agencies like the UHP.
“I’d like to think we have less DUIs on the road,” said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan. “On the other hand, if we’re just masking the problem, we need to face the funding issue as a Legislature.”
Lawmakers this year appropriated $5.6 million for cities and counties to use for DUI enforcement, prosecution, treatment and education. It also passed three bills tightening drinking-and-driving laws.
UHP superintendent Col. Daniel Fuhr said troopers stepped up their DUI enforcement as part of an initiative to make 10 percent more arrests than last year. The result was a 26 percent increase. However, he told lawmakers not to expect that in the future.
“Can we sustain these numbers?” he said. “Absolutely not.”
Fuhr said the UHP’s priority this year is seat-belt use.