A wrecked Utah Highway Patrol vehicle is pictured outside of UHP headquarters in Taylorsville on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. The vehicle is now used by the Honoring Heroes Foundation to raise awareness about moving over to give space to emergency responders working on the side of the road. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)
TAYLORSVILLE — Utah Highway Patrol trooper Thomas Burnam had pulled off to the side of the freeway to finish writing a DUI investigation he had just handled, when he heard tires screeching.
Burnam assumed he was about to witness an accident. Instead, he turned just as another vehicle crashed into his patrol car.
“And as soon as I hear the tires screeching, the next thing I remember is my vehicle was being pushed almost into traffic. It started to turn, the front end of my vehicle started to go toward traffic, so it’s pretty much perpendicular to the freeway at that point,” he said.
Burnam was on the shoulder of I-215 — parked about 10-feet off the main road — near 700 North when he was hit from behind on Aug. 4.
It was the second time in three years that Burnam was hit by another vehicle while working.
“It’s not fun getting hit. Especially with it happening twice, it feels like it’s going to happen again, unfortunately, just because of how much traffic and how fast everybody is driving,” Burnam said.
On Tuesday, Burnam and other members of the UHP held a press conference urging drivers to move over a lane when they see a trooper on the side of the road.
As of Tuesday, 24 troopers had been hit on Utah’s freeways in 2021, said UHP Col. Michael Rapich, which is more than last year.
During the first week of August alone, two troopers were hit: Burnam and Sgt. Andrew Pollard. Pollard was pulled over on the shoulder of I-215 near 2800 South to investigate an abandoned vehicle. In body-cam video released Tuesday, Pollard is seen sitting in the driver’s seat when he is violently and unexpectedly hit from behind. Pollard, in obvious pain, struggled to get out of his car and behind the cement barrier for safety.
Pollard was taken to a local hospital for treatment. He was originally scheduled to talk about his experience at Tuesday’s press conference but instead had to go to the doctor for a check-up related to his injuries.
The message UHP’s top brass wanted to convey to other motorists on Tuesday was to move over. If a motorist sees an emergency vehicle with flashing lights ahead, that driver should slow down and move over a lane, Rapich said. There are other problems troopers continue to see, such as distracted driving, intoxicated driving and drivers going too fast, he said. But all of those issues are also tied to not moving over, he said.
“The really frustrating thing about this is every single one of these (crashes) is avoidable if people would just simply slow down and move over a little bit and give a little bit of space and realize, ‘I need to be paying a little bit more attention. I need to give myself a little bit more room. I need to give those who are along side the road for whatever they’re doing a little bit more, and I need to be expecting the unexpected,” Rapich said. “Hopefully when we’re seeing emergency lights, we’re putting our phone down if we were foolish enough to have it in our hand in the first place.”
Burnam said unfortunately, he knows so many troopers and officers who have been hit that “it’s not uncommon at this point.”
He said the public needs to understand how dangerous being on the interstate can be, and how troopers need that extra lane to work — whether it’s for assisting a stranded motorist, giving a speeding ticket, or investigating a suspected drunk driver who has the potential to wander into traffic.
Burnam said when he’s making a DUI stop, he is focused the driver he’s pulled over and not the other traffic. So it “makes your hair raise up when you turn and see a car that’s on the fog line” instead of moving over a lane, he said.
Burnam echoed Rapich’s comments for drivers to slow down.
“Everybody is driving too fast and following too close to everybody else. If you can’t see traffic in front of the vehicle you’re following, you’re a little too close and you don’t know what’s coming up on you,” he said.
“We’ve got a lot of summer left,” the colonel added. “We have two weeks of a lot of travel left in the summer. Wintertime is just around the corner, and that’s when this really becomes an issue, when we have slick conditions, when we have snowstorm conditions, we’ve got reduced visibility and our troopers are going to be out there all over the place trying to get people to slow down and minimize those hazards.”
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