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March 1, 2024

CT vows targeted crackdown on reckless drivers

YEHYUN KIM / CTMIRROR.ORG Jackie Katibian, a personal care aide, cleans, does the laundry and drives her client to doctor's appointments.

With traffic on I-91 in Rocky Hill as a telegenic backdrop, Gov. Ned Lamont and his top public safety officials on Thursday outlined a data-driven approach to mitigate the speeding and reckless driving that have become endemic in Connecticut.

“Using data, improved technology and targeted enforcement, the Connecticut State Police will work to reduce highway fatalities,” said Ronnell A. Higgins, the commissioner of emergency services and public protection. “We know where the greatest problems are. We know that increased enforcement works.”

Traffic stops in Connecticut fell by more than half in 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and have yet to fully rebound. At the same time, traffic fatalities increased from 255 in 2019 to 366 in 2022, the deadliest year on record.

“We’re working to bring our enforcement numbers up,” said Col. Daniel Loughman, the State Police commander. “We’re trying to get the entire State Police patrol in on this. We’re working to increase our visibility out there.”

The targeting will be necessary to make an impact, given staffing levels. The State Police traffic unit has a dozen troopers and three supervisors — only one quarter of the estimated 60 troopers and supervisors on the unit at its peak.

Overall, the State Police has 931 uniformed personnel, down from a peak more than a decade ago of 1,200. It is authorized to bolster the ranks.

“Given the number of troopers we have, we have to focus on the areas right now that are extremely problematic,” Higgins said.

Connecticut’s traffic issues mirror national trends that have defied easy explanation. Reckless driving seemed to increase in the first year of COVID, when the highways were relatively empty, and continued as traffic returned.

“I found, over the last six years, my life is BC and AC — before COVID and after COVID. And COVID unleashed some germs and also unleashed some demons,” Lamont said.

Annual traffic deaths in the U.S. peaked at 54,589 in 1972, fell to 32,479 in 2011 and then increased by 7% in 2020 and 10.5% in 2021 — hitting 42,938 fatalities. Connecticut hit its peak a year later.

Speeding and impairment due to alcohol and other substances were factors in more than a third of the deaths.

“It’s notable that in 2020 we had one impaired driving death every 45 minutes in the United States. In 2021, one every 39 minutes. That’s the trend. It’s getting worse,” said Arthur Kinsman, regional director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, co-chair of the Transportation Committee, said the legislature is once again considering lowering the legal standard for drunken driving from a blood-alcohol level of .08% to .05%.

“We are doing all we can in the legislature to be responsive, to analyze this data and to understand what is happening out there,” Cohen said.

The record number of fatalities in 2022, combined with a state lawmaker’s death in a collision with a wrong way driver in early 2023, led to the passage of legislation allowing red-light and speeding cameras and providing resources for measures aimed at reducing wrong-way driving.

Garrett Eucalitto, the commissioner of transportation, said the warning features already have been credited with alerting drivers who had entered a highway in the wrong direction.

“We’ve already indicated several people who have been stopped using that technology,” he said. “Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, it doesn’t stop everyone, and it’s not everywhere.”

The news conference came just days after a wrong-way driver collided head-on with another car on I-95 in West Haven. The wrong-way driver and the driver and two passengers in the other car were killed.

“My thoughts and prayers are with those families. But thoughts and prayers aren’t enough anymore. Sadly, every wrong-way crash results in a fatality,” said Rep. Kathy Kennedy of Milford, the ranking House Republican on the Transportation Committee

Higgins and Loughman, who are new in their positions, have acknowledged that enforcement has lessened in recent years and that reckless driving is evident to anyone on Connecticut’s highways.

“I understand the frustration associated with observing dangerous driving behaviors by others and at times the lack of consequences for said actions,” Loughman said.

After the news conference, he told Cohen that one of the new regime’s first goals was to “take back the highways.”

Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, who represents Rocky Hill in the Senate, said reckless driving is the issue most raised by his constituents.

State Police made 312 arrests for driving under the influence in January and February. The department just purchased 50 new lasers for measuring the speed of vehicles, and it has obtained grants that will fund enforcement teams on rural roads.

The targeted enforcement has begun. Last week, State Police cited nearly 230 drivers for infractions on the Merritt Parkway: 157 in passenger cars, and 71 in trucks that are prohibited from the parkway.

Stretches of I-95 and I-91 with an accident history will be targeted next.

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