Is it time to criminalize road rage in Utah?
Jun 15, 2023, 4:14 PM | Updated: 4:20 pm
SALT LAKE CITY — Two people were killed earlier this month when a driver lost control of his vehicle during an alleged road rage incident and collided with another car head-on.
Just a day later, the Utah Highway Patrol announced it was looking for a motorcyclist who is believed to have shot and injured a driver during another road rage altercation on I-15.
Utah leads the nation with the most confrontational drivers, according to a 2022 Forbes Advisor report, which found that around a quarter of Utah drivers know someone who has been injured in a road rage incident.
As a result, state lawmakers took the first step toward cracking down on reckless driving, even in cases where it doesn’t result in serious injury or death.
The Legislature‘s Transportation Interim Committee heard from several law enforcement officers during a hearing Wednesday, as well as Utah County Chief Deputy Attorney Chad Grunander.
UHP Col. Mike Rapich briefed the committee on the statistics gathered by the Utah Department of Public Safety. Because Utah doesn’t define road rage in code, the data was compiled using uniform reporting definitions from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
While the number of road rage-related crashes has remained fairly steady in the past six years, the number of serious injuries and fatalities in such crashes has seen a noticeable uptick recently.
“In the last three years, we’ve seen a general spike in fatalities, and so that kind of follows a trend that we’ve seen spiking since 2020,” Rapich said.
At least 23 people have been killed in road rage-related crashes each of the past three years, with 15 or fewer deaths in each of the three years prior. There have been at least five deaths and 322 road rage-related crashes so far this year.
Lawmakers discussed potential changes to state law to increase the penalties for reckless driving or add a new penalty for road rage. Reckless driving, a class B misdemeanor, is described as “willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property” and includes driving faster than 105 mph or committing three or more traffic violations in a “single continuous period.”
Drivers who kill another driver or pedestrian as a result of road rage can be charged with vehicular homicide, a second degree felony, but Grunander said the state could develop a better way to punish drivers who engage in potentially deadly aggressive behavior even when the incident doesn’t result in serious injury or death.
“That would be the only thing we really could charge in a road rage incident would be reckless driving,” he said. “It may be a specific deterrent to that individual moving forward, but as far as whether it captures the dangerousness of the situation and what could have escalated into something worse, it probably doesn’t capture it all the time.”
The committee also discussed a potential awareness campaign to remind drivers about the dangers of losing their tempers on the road. Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith said he supports reminding drivers that traffic inconveniences like being cut off are inevitable, and everyone on the road shouldn’t be surprised or get angry when such incidents happen.
“If you drive down the road and you don’t think that someone’s gonna pull in front of you or there could be somebody stopped short in front of you or whatever it is that sets you off, those probabilities are high and they’re going to happen,” he said.
But whether it’s through education or enhanced penalties, he said the issue needs to be addressed.
Lawmakers didn’t take any concrete steps toward either policy, but Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, moved that the committee open a bill file on the subject to make it easier to research going forward. She suggested borrowing from other states that have tackled similar issues and working closely with law enforcement “on the best tools that we can be giving them in this situation.”
Legislators and their staffs will continue to look into the issue in the coming months, but any legislation wouldn’t be approved until the general legislative session next January.
The Transportation Interim Committee meets again on Aug. 9.