Utah Winter Travel Safety


Photos by Kiffer Creveling

Dan Belding

The Wasatch Front’s easy access to untouched powder and world-class resorts remains unparalleled by most other regions. The crack-of-dawn drives through heavy snow to get first tracks has certainly become a rite of passage for any “real” skier in Utah. There is something downright thrilling about getting your gear ready, loading the car and braving the awful road conditions while your next door neighbors stay bundled up inside, glued to the local weather reports. As exhilarating as this feeling is for many Utahns, there are certainly many underlying factors which could cause a morning drive up to Park City– or any of the surrounding canyons– to turn into something catastrophic.

To gain insight into how winter conditions affect roads, I spoke with Courtney Samuel, the head of the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) for Tooele, Salt Lake and Summit counties.

Although Utah is known for its regular winter snowfall, many residents still make poor decisions when it comes to traveling in the snow. In 2017 alone there were 58,420 accidents reported on Utah roads which resulted in 250 deaths.

When asked about what causes so many accidents in the winter Samuel explained, “The most direct causes of crashes are distracted driving, not snowfall… snow adds danger to driving but most of the time simple negligence while driving in the snow creates danger.” Distracted driving is a major threat on even the safest travel days. In fact, one in four accidents across the state are results of distracted driving. But when snow comes into the equation, it is important to give full attention whether it’s just a dusting or a blizzard- mixing snow plows into this concoction makes driving even more dangerous. Samuel noted that each year, dozens of UDOT snow plows are involved in accidents when drivers slide into them on roads.

Chains are used during dangerous snow conditions.

Mountain traffic on deep days certainly contributes to accidents across Utah roads. Skiers and snowboarders oftentimes put road safety to the wayside when only a 40-minute drive separates them from a day on the mountain. Whether it’s driving aggressively and trying to beat traffic to get a better parking spot at the mountain and catch first chair, or simply driving a car unfit for the conditions, there are a litany of mistakes which drivers make during each storm.

Perhaps the most important restrictions to follow during the winter months are road closures, both seasonal and temporary. During particularly heavy snowfall many Utah roads which access backcountry zones as well as resorts are placed under 4×4 or chained tire restrictions. Samuel recognizes that many travelers don’t feel the need to follow these restrictions but cannot stress the importance enough. “Daily restrictions require a large snowfall to be placed into effect. We’re not trying to ruin a day of skiing for people, we’re simply keeping them, as well as other travelers, out of harm’s way,” said Samuel.

On snowy days, getting up and down the canyon can take hours. Hundreds of cars sit in line to get up to the ski resorts

Although it may be painful for many Utahns to admit, sometimes staying off the roads and missing out on a powder day is the only option. A day on the mountain is always great, but nobody should let skiing come at the expense of a wrecked car or a lost life.

It’s not uncommon to see this tragedy befall passenger cars up in resort parking lots, even though plows strive to avoid this.