Driving in Utah
Utah's 84,897 square miles are filled with some of America's most iconic landscapes, like the spectacular red sandstone formation of Delicate Arch, near Moab, and the classic movie backdrop of Monument Valley, on the Arizona border. Its fast-growing population is mostly concentrated along the Wasatch Range in the north central part of the state. But there's plenty to see and do in all corners of Utah, from ski resorts to small towns. Unsurprisingly, to get to those places – or just to run to the grocery store – you probably need a car.
And whether you're commuting in Logan, vacationing at Lake Powell, or just heading out for a leisurely weekend drive, Utah has some unique rules and requirements relating to motorists. Here's what you need to know before getting behind the wheel in the Beehive State:
Auto Insurance in Utah
Utah requires auto insurance for all resident drivers, and all non-residents operating a vehicle that has been in the state for 90 days in the past 365 days. The minimum coverage required is as follows:
- No-Fault Insurance: $3,000 per person
- Liability Insurance: $25,000 for bodily injury per person, per accident; $65,000 for bodily injury total per accident; and $15,000 for property damage per accident or $80,000 total for bodily injury and property damage
Liability insurance pays for property damage or injuries suffered by others in an accident for which you are at fault. No-Fault (or Personal Injury Protection) covers your medical costs whether you or another driver is found responsible. Utahns may also purchase additional types of coverage, such as comprehensive or collision insurance.
Utah's Car Culture
Utah's modern history began with people in motion. Starting in 1847, tens of thousands of Mormon pioneers journeyed great distances to settle in a desert landscape many others would have found unlivable. After Utah became a state in 1896, various groups of people with their own reasons to head West continued to traverse its sometimes otherworldly terrain, despite the challenges it presented.
Some of these historic routes through Utah history can still be followed to this day – by car, of course. Several National Historic Trails wind through the state, commemorating the Pony Express, the expansion of train service across the nation, the travels of the early Mormons, and the trek to California in search of gold.
And given its position in the center of America, Utah often turns up in tales of great American road trips. To give just one example, Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" includes a quick trip through the Beehive State ("As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, 'Pass here and go on, you're on the road to heaven.'")
Your Mileage May Vary
Today, Utah residents are still in motion, and in the modern era, that means they drive a lot: 15,442 miles per year, on average, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration. That's more than the average American, who drives 14,425 miles a year, and residents of neighboring states Colorado (13,443 miles) and Nevada (12,869 miles.)
But all that driving doesn't necessarily mean Utah residents have lengthy commutes. U.S. News & World Report ranked Utah 10th best in America for short commute times; the state's workers clocked in at 21.3 minutes, on average. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported in 2013 that 76 percent of Utah commuters drove to work by themselves, and 11.8 percent carpooled. Although some cities are served by bus, train, and light rail, only 2.3 percent of workers in the state took public transportation to work.
Urban vs. Rural Roads
In 2016, per Utah's Department of Public Safety (DPS), there were 259 fatal crashes in the state, in which 281 people were killed – the highest number of traffic fatalities in nine years. Of the fatal crashes, 62.5 percent happened on urban roads and 37.5 percent on rural roads. The Department points out that urban counties had 24 more crashes last year than the previous three year average.
Nationwide, more fatal crashes occur in rural areas than urban ones, and Utah is mostly rural; the state defines 23 of its 29 counties as rural counties. However, roughly 80 percent of Utah's 3 million residents live in urban areas along the Wasatch Front, which includes the capital, Salt Lake City, as well as other densely populated cities like Provo and Ogden. The high concentration of people living in urban areas may account for the higher number of fatal crashes there; in developing their 2017 Highway Safety Plan, the DPS studied Utah crash data and found that impaired driving crashes – one of several types of incidents considered in their report on highway safety problems – occur somewhat in proportion to the population density, and that therefore most crashes involving a drunk or drugged driver took place in urban areas.
Rural areas have their own dangers – for example, the DPS reported, rural crashes were more likely to involve a drowsy driver, and people who died in rural crashes were less likely to be wearing a seat belt.
The Price of Gas
If you're concerned about how much you're spending to fill your tank, you can increase the fuel efficiency of your vehicle by adapting some new driving habits. These changes will help keep costs down no matter where you live or work.
The Unemployment Rate
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Utah's unemployment rate was 3.1 percent in February 2018, giving the state a rank of 11th lowest unemployment in the country. The nationwide unemployment rate that month was 4.1 percent.
Of course, a state's unemployment rate tends to vary by city and region. The BLS reported that in February 2018, the most recent month for which data was available, unemployment was lower (just 2,9 percent) in the Logan metropolitan area in the northeast corner of the state, and higher (3.6 percent) in St. George, in the southwest.
A low unemployment rate, like the one Utah is currently experiencing, can lead to heavier traffic as more commuters head to work and more people can afford to splurge on dinners out, shopping trips, and visits to local attractions. You might notice this in Salt Lake City at rush hour, or on weekends in the parking areas of what the Utah Office of Tourism calls "The Mighty 5" famed national parks in the state.
Distracted driving sometimes seems like a way of life in the era of smartphones, but the phrase also refers to other actions – like eating, talking, or playing with the radio dial – that divert a driver's attention from the road.
In Utah, officials say it's a growing problem: in 2015, there were 5,850 car crashes caused by distracted driving, resulting in 3,202 injuries and 28 deaths.
Texting while driving is prohibited in Utah, including dialing a phone number or typing for any reason. Speaking on a handheld cellphone is legal, though it can be considered an offense if a driver is caught doing so while committing another moving violation. The Utah Highway Patrol urges drivers to be responsible when using phones in the car. Drivers under 18 are banned from using wireless communication devices, hands-free as well as handheld, while driving.
Penalties can include fines and points on your driving record.
Teen Drivers in Utah
The first step for teens wishing to obtain a driver's license in Utah is to apply for a learner's permit, which can be done at the age of 15. To get a learner's permit, a teenager must first pass a written test and a vision test. They can then begin practicing with a driving instructor, parent, or legal guardian, until they've logged 40 hours of driving, 10 of them at night.
The next step is to take a road test to receive a provisional license. A teen is eligible for a provisional license once they have turned 16, held their learner's permit for at least six months, and passed an approved driver education course. Provisional license holders can drive without supervision but, with certain exceptions, they are prohibited from driving late at night before they turn 17, and from having non-family passengers for the first six months.
Finally, teens who are at least 17 and have held their provisional license for at least six months are eligible for a full, unrestricted license.
Parents worried about how their new teenage driver is doing in the car without adult supervision can remotely monitor a teen's driving using either a GPS-enabled tracking device, or features that come built into some newer cars. The latter can even control some aspects of the driver's behavior, such as limiting the volume on the car stereo or sending incoming phone calls straight to voicemail.
The State of Driving in Utah
Utah's diverse landscapes can make for an epic road trip into the wilderness. But on most days, most of the state's growing population is more likely to be found on the streets of the cities and surrounding towns where they live and work. But whether you drive in the city, the mountains, the desert, or all over the Beehive State, staying well-informed about local laws and regulations can help you stay safe on the road.