HARTFORD – Advocates say speeding and distracted driving, coupled with poor crosswalk signaling and underwhelming law enforcement on the roads, appear to have contributed to an alarming rise in fatalities among pedestrians throughout Connecticut in recent years.
That’s why state legislators and concerned citizens alike are advocating in favor of House Bill 5324 during a public hearing before the Transportation Committee on Monday.
The state saw a 20% increase in pedestrian fatalities from 2017 to 2018, according to a Governor’s Highway Association report. In the first two months of 2020 alone, 14 Connecticut pedestrians have lost their lives in traffic-related accidents, putting state on pace for 84 deaths this year if changes are not made. The House passed two pedestrian safety bills last year only to see them die on the Senate calendar.
Supporters of this year’s bill said towns and cities should be able to determine what speed is safe on their streets by gathering input from residents. Another stated goal of the legislation is to improve crosswalk safety by allowing pedestrians to signal their intent to cross by waving, pointing, or putting a foot out into road, instead of the state’s current expectation of stepping fully into a crosswalk in what advocates referred to Monday as the “killing zone.”
Other common sense changes in the bill include increasing fines for using a mobile device or phone, in order to heighten awareness and further discourage the behavior.
“This bill will not cost the state any money. It merely protects vulnerable users in the crosswalk and cyclists on the road from being struck by vehicles traveling at speeds that would cause considerable harm in a crash with a vulnerable user,” wrote Dr. Carl Baum on behalf of a group of state pediatric ER Doctors in submitted testimony.
Five of the 14 pedestrian deaths so far in 2020 have occurred in New Haven. During Monday’s public hearing, one city resident spoke up.
Joshua Glaab, head coach of the men’s cross country team at Quinnipiac University who is a New Haven resident and a cyclist, said a combination of irregular enforcement of traffic laws and only giving slap-on-the-wrist punishments for infractions has led to a culture of entitlement among drivers.
“Connecticut as a state has encouraged both aggressive driving and an entitlement issue when it comes to driving cars,” Glaab stated. “The expectation is how do I get to where I’m going as fast as I can and, oh my gosh, everything in my way is preventing me from doing that.”
“The timing of lights in our city [New Haven] do not match up,” Glaab said, adding that it causes an emotional response in drivers who feel that they have to make up time and therefore drive in a more brazen manner, thus jeopardizing pedestrians and cyclists.
Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, furthered this concern, stating that in an age of faster and safer cars, pedestrians have become a mere afterthought.
“The person inside the 3,000-pound vehicle feels perfectly comfortable flying down the road at 40 miles-per-hour without fear of what is going to happen to them,” Lemar said.
However, some Committee members like Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, stressed that there must be “some commiserate understanding of responsibility on behalf of pedestrians and cyclists.”
Pedestrians are often walking or cycling in dark-colored clothing and at later hours of the day or dusk. Osten stated that their goal and responsibility should be to be seen by vehicles, and they can achieve this by wearing brightly colored vests, among other options.
Glaab agreed, stating “if you’re a pedestrian and not doing everything you can to be seen, you’re making an exceptionally dangerous choice.” However, with such a disproportionate amount at stake compared to drivers, Glaab again argued that state law should err on the side of protecting pedestrians and cyclists.
“If I hit your car it gets a dent. If you hit me, I’m very lucky to not be in a casket,” Glaab said.
Lemar stated that distracted driving has quickly become one of Connecticut’s gravest concerns on its roads and should be treated and fined as such.
Just as it took some time for America’s social consciousness and police departments to recognize drunken driving for the problem it’s properly understood to be now, Lemar believes public opinion has come around to support increased penalties for driving while distracted.
“Personally I feel that my family and constituents are more at risk of a distracted driver going 45 mph who takes his or her eyes off the road for 10 seconds to check a text than they are someone drunk driving,” Lemar told those in attendance.
Jim Jinks, a town council member in Cheshire and head of Bike Cheshire, argued in favor of allowing local traffic authorities to establish lower speed limits on streets under their jurisdiction.
Much of Connecticut’s residential speeding results from how its municipal roads were principally designed. Jinks stated that many local streets were designed with the same 13-foot wide standard used for expressways and interstate systems, thus “crowding out space for other road users” like pedestrians and cyclists.
These increased speeds on municipal roads have had catastrophic effects on smaller towns and communities in the state. Rep Lezlye Zupkis, R-Prospect, echoed this concern, stating how in her town of Prospect, “kids can’t even go outside because cars travel so fast. We’ve tried speed bumps and everything else to slow them down.”
Furthermore, every mile-per-hour difference matters when it comes to projected outcomes for pedestrians who are struck.
“A person hit by a car traveling 30 mph or more is 7-9 times more likely to be killed than by a car traveling only 20 mph,” Jinks reported.
As state law mandates most municipal speed limits be set at 25 mph, and with most officers allowing vehicles to get away with speeds a little above what’s officially posted, Jinks believes it’s imperative to push for new limits at 20 mph or lower.
Connecticut is one of only 10 states that don’t have a current “dooring policy” in place to safeguard cyclists or passersby from operators of motor vehicles opening doors into their pathway. Section 9 of the bill would address this by imposing a $90 fine for violators.
“The owner of the vehicle who opened their door in front of me was courteous, but faced no consequences for what could have been the end of a life,” said Scott Gigante, a New Haven resident and cyclist who was injured last year when a car door opened in front of him causing a crash, in submitted testimony.
Gigante believes that imposing fines will increase operators’ awareness of their actions and help curb this problem facing cyclists in Connecticut.