Utah just has the worst drivers. Right?
I’ve heard that claim so often, from natives and non-natives alike, that I’ve basically believed it. After all, it’s not infrequently I run into trouble from fellow motorists while driving, and we’ve all driven by plenty of crashes on I-15 and elsewhere.
But I also know how much fun it is to complain about bad drivers — no one ever makes small talk about how smooth their commute was. Moreover, I also know about exceptionalism bias: the idea that people tend to believe their circumstances are outside the norm. Is Utah’s driving really worse than most places?
So I thought of all of the relevant evidence points you’d want to check in order to study the quality of a state’s driving, then looked up Utah’s rank in each. Does Utah really have the worst drivers, or is it just a lie we tell ourselves?
Where does Utah rank in traffic fatalities per capita?
Car accidents where people die are extremely well-tracked by the federal government. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) keeps track of deadly crashes and the number of fatalities represented in car accidents — as well as bicycling and pedestrian accidents. In 2021, Utah had 328 traffic deaths, or 9.8 per 100,000 people in the state. That ranks… 13th safest in the U.S., way below the federal average.
What about traffic fatalities per mile driven?
But of course, it’s possible that Utahns drive less than other states do per capita. There are more young kids who are unable to drive in Utah than anywhere else, after all. That doesn’t explain it, though — in fact, the numbers decrease when taking miles driven into account. Utah ranks as the 8th safest in traffic deaths per mile driven.
The low fatality rate, by the way, isn’t mostly due to the kinds of cars Utahns tend to drive. Yes, 30% of Utah driving fatalities were in SUVs, compared to 26% nationwide. But that’s not much of an outlier, as it ranks 14th in the country.
Are bikers or pedestrians more at danger in Utah than in other states?
Streetlight, a transportation data company, ranked all 50 states in terms of bicycle fatalities per capita and by miles traveled. Utah ranked as the 8th safest state per capita, and the 5th safest state by bicycle miles traveled. In terms of pedestrian fatalities per capita, Utah ranked 9th safest in the latest NHTSA report.
What about non-deadly accidents?
The vast majority of crashes aren’t deadly, though. Of crashes reported to police, only about 1 in 200 results in a fatality — and it’s estimated that 44% of all crashes don’t end up getting a police call at all. Finding state-by-state data on those crashes is actually pretty tricky, because the NHTSA doesn’t report those statistics on that basis.
But we can be creative about finding out about them. The NHTSA does keep track of the estimated economic impact of car crashes, in terms of medical costs, car repair or replacement costs, and even lost productivity costs. Per capita, car crashes cost Utahns $874 per year, far less than the $1,035 on average in the U.S. Both figures represent 1.8% of the overall average per capita personal income.
Where does Utah rank in DUIs?
Utah has a lower percentage of drinkers than other states, but also a lower threshold for DUI arrests. So in the end, how does Utah compare? There were 266 DUI arrests per 100K people in Utah in 2019, after the .05 BAC law was introduced. That ranks 18th safest in the states. Furthermore, Utah ranks 45th in DUI fatalities per capita, one of the lowest in the nation.
What about other kinds of illegal dangerous driving?
In 2021, 33% of traffic fatalities in Utah involved speeding, higher than the national average of 29%. Still, that only ranks Utah 21st in the nation in terms of speeding fatality percentage. Data about speeding tickets rather than speeding deaths is harder to find, but insurance company Insurify listed the top 10 states based on how many of its applicants had speeding tickets on their records; Utah was not among the top 10, but did have more speeding tickets than average.
When it comes to distracted driving, only 6% of fatal crashes included a distracted driver. That ranks as the 16th safest. Wrong-way driving is particularly dangerous, but was only about 1% of fatal crashes in Utah. That ranks 21st safest.
But Utah does rank as the 7th most dangerous state when it comes to hit-and-runs; seven Utah drivers per 10,000 motorists have a hit-and-run on their record according to Insurify.
Utahns are about average when it comes to seat belt use: 91.8% of Utahns wear their seat belts, compared to 91.6% nationwide.
How does Utah compare in terms of car insurance costs and claims?
Relatedly, car insurance companies will charge more if they have more (and more expensive) claims to pay out. They adjust their rates by state. Utah’s rates are the 11th lowest in the U.S., which means Utah’s car insurance expenditures represent 1.22% of median household income, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
Insurers also adjust their rates by urban area and ZIP code, because usually, urban driving is more dangerous than rural driving. Out of 200 metro areas ranked by Allstate, Salt Lake City ranked as the 67th safest in 2019. In SLC, Allstate insurance customers generally had 9.8 years between collisions. Once you standardize for weather, Salt Lake City ranks 104th — so slightly below-average, but nowhere near the bottom of the list.
What about dangerous driving that doesn’t result in crashes?
Because Allstate issues telemetry readers to a large portion of its insured drivers, the company also has data on near-crashes. Every time someone slams on the brakes, Allstate counts it as a “hard-braking event.” Salt Lake City drivers had 20.56 hard breaking events per 1,000 miles driven, which is higher than the national average of 19 per 1,000 miles driven. However, it is below average for an urban area in the U.S.
Zendrive, a company with access to data from 4.5 million drivers nationwide, says that Utah ranks 19th safest in the amount of time drivers are looking at their phones while driving. In Utah, 6.2% of drive time was spent on the phone, and while that sounds like a lot, it’s less than the national average.
Utah also ranked as the 7th-fastest driving state in a 2017 study that used data from 150,000 Android phones. For 15% of the time, Utahns drove over 70 miles per hour.
What about just plain old annoying driving?
Lurking in the left lane, stealing a parking spot, not letting someone merge, not using a turn signal… all of these would be considered rude driving.
But unfortunately, we don’t have great data on the matter on a state-by-state basis. Instead, we’re relying on various surveys with pretty small sample sizes to determine driving rudeness.
Kars4Kids’ #DriveHuman campaign interviewed 50 drivers from each state in 2017 about their courteous driving habits. In the end, Utah was ranked with the 12th-most courteous drivers overall. In a report-card style system where A+ meant courteous driving and F means rude driving, the state got a C in speeding up to prevent someone from passing; a B- in how its drivers respond to slow driving, using turn signals, and allowing people to merge in heavy traffic; a B+ in stealing parking spots; and an A+ in responding rudely in heavy traffic.
Meanwhile, Insure.com interviewed 2,000 people nationwide about their driving habits; if they used a proportional number from each state, that means 20 Utah interviewees. They found Utah as the 10th-rudest state, particularly pointing out Utah’s speeding habits.
And a Forbes survey of 5,000 nationwide (or about 50 Utahns) ranked Utah as the most confrontational driving state. As Forbes writes: “Utahns were the most likely in the nation (76%) to report that another driver in their home state has honked at them in frustration. More than half (58%) of survey respondents in Utah said they have been on the receiving end of a rude or offensive gesture while driving. Utah drivers were second most likely to say that another driver has tailgated them (73%), and that another driver has exceeded the speed limit just to block them from changing lanes (47%).”
In the end, I just don’t know if 20 to 50 Utahns surveyed is a large enough sample size to really determine how we rank compared to the rest of the country. If you interview that few of people, some studies are going to show Utah as having very nice drivers, and others will say we have very mean drivers, just because of random selection bias. That’s what we see above.
It’s worth noting that QuoteWizard.com, though, also found Utah as the state with the worst drivers. The company doesn’t use a survey methodology, instead getting data from people looking for car insurance quotes. QuoteWizard cites the state as “ranking high in every dangerous driving category — Utah ranks first in speeding, second in citations, fifth in accidents and eighth in DUIs.”
That being said, I’m skeptical of that report, too. We have great nationwide DUI data from the federal government, in which Utah ranks nowhere near 8th. The speeding data doesn’t match up with what I was able to find, either.
And maybe most tellingly, if Utah really were 5th in accident frequency, we probably wouldn’t have relatively cheap car insurance.
Really, that’s what I keep coming back to over and over again: if Utahns really were the worst drivers, we’d be getting into more accidents, dying more often on the roads, and spending out the nose for our dangerous ways. And instead, we’re just not — in most of those metrics, we’re safer than average. That’s true even when you limit the data to just our urban areas.
Utah just has pretty typical drivers. Right?
Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.
Based in New York, Stephen Freeman is a Senior Editor at Trending Insurance News. Previously he has worked for Forbes and The Huffington Post. Steven is a graduate of Risk Management at the University of New York.