Two blocks from my home in Hartford on Thursday, Aug. 13, a bicycle rider, either on the sidewalk or in the bicycle lane, was struck, mangled, and killed by a hit and run driver. There were two drivers racing on the avenue and one veered across the road and over top of the vulnerable user.
There is video of the street immediately preceding the crash, and I won’t share the video of Danny Rodriguez’s dismembered body. One will notice while watching the video that there are many pedestrians out at 8:30 pm in this neighborhood where over 40% of households don’t have a car.
Neighbors on Wethersfield Avenue and the family of the man slain are in an uproar about speeding and reckless driving on that wide street, particularly during the pandemic. While gathering in remembrance on Sunday, Aug. 16,, the group was flabbergasted as a driver used the left turn lane as a high speed passing lane directly in front of two Hartford police officers in cruisers. Neither of the officers took action despite imprecations from the gathered mourners. Hearing from community members that physical design changes would be more effective than traffic enforcement, the family started a petition in support of traffic calming and speed humps on Wethersfield Avenue.
This call for physical changes to the street design echoes similar requests on Hartford’s north Main Street, Capitol Avenue, and Flatbush Avenue. This doesn’t seem to be an issue unique to one neighborhood.
Let us back up to the state level. Coming into 2020, Connecticut had a surge in pedestrian fatalities with 14 deaths in just the first two months of this year. That put the state on track to blast past the prior 3-year average annual pedestrian fatality count. This was of particular concern as the state had already seen a steady rise in pedestrian crash deaths year after year. In parallel, the state legislature was considering a comprehensive bill that would have instituted several measures intended to increase the safety of vulnerable road users, including the state’s transit riders who walk or bike at one or both ends of their transit trips. That proposed bill was stalled by the pandemic cutting short the legislative session.
Then, our collective world tumbled into a global pandemic. Transportation behaviors changed almost overnight as many were kept home telecommuting while others lost their jobs entirely. Traffic levels measured on the state’s interstates and state routes fell by 50% from 2019 levels. By the end of June 2020, motor vehicle traffic levels had climbed back to within 15% of their pre-pandemic levels despite record levels of unemployment. While driving was reduced during the pandemic the state experienced a bicycling boom, at least as measured on our multiuse paths and rail trails with a 50% increase in users.
Typically, crash fatalities go down as motor vehicle driving goes down. Over the past 10 years there has been a steady rate of fatal crashes per vehicle mile traveled (VMT). Nationally, the fatal crash rate per vehicle miles traveled has seen variances of at most +/- 5% from the average value over the same time period.
For a moment those of us working on transportation safety thought we would see a big reduction in Connecticut’s fatal crashes during the pandemic. We were sadly mistaken.
Despite the huge reduction in motor vehicle traffic during the pandemic, we saw an increase in fatal crashes from 109 in 2019 to 123 in 2020 during the first 6 months of each year, a 12.8% increase. Looking more granularly at April 2019 versus April 2020, fatalities climbed from 11 to 24. Fatalities more than doubled in April 2020 when compared to the same month in the previous year. We would have expected April 2020 crash fatalities to be halved with half as much driving. Something is up. What caused an increase to overall crash deaths with such a significant reduction in driving?
We have a strong hunch. Speed kills and our previous research into fatal Connecticut crashes shows that 13.2% of female drivers and 18.3% of male drivers were killed in speed related crashes. Driving under the influence has a big connection to fatal crashes as well, with 29.8% of female and 37.3% of male drivers killed in crashes while intoxicated. We don’t have good numbers for evaluating distracted driving relative to fatal crashes, as that is harder to prove posthumously.
What we suspect is that the Connecticut State Police and many Connecticut municipal police departments put traffic enforcement actions on hiatus for several months during the pandemic. This CT DOT dashboard shows that speeding, especially very high speeds, were more common during the months of the pandemic on interstates where they capture daily data. If you were wondering why more drivers seem to be cluelessly texting and driving, the statewide annual April distracted driving enforcement campaign was put on hold. YouTube videos went viral as speed demons used the opportunity to break the record for crossing the US via interstate on the infamous Cannonball Run. Local streets seemed like the Wild West in my Hartford neighborhood just south of Downtown.
How long did the State Police and local police departments decide that traffic enforcement was non-essential? Your guess is as good as mine. We have been trying to confirm how much traffic enforcement was curtailed at the state and local level, but the data has not been made available. For example, the Hartford traffic enforcement division hasn’t attended a single City of Hartford Complete Streets meeting in 2020, even after those monthly meetings went online.
By comparison in 2019, an attendee from Hartford Police Department would regularly report out at the monthly meeting on the number of traffic stops and types of stops, comparing those numbers to previous years. That data driven, proactive traffic enforcement approach seems to have been left by the roadside like a hit-and-run victim. It is confusing how traffic enforcement could be considered non-essential when as recently as 2018, the city experienced as many crash fatalities within city limits as there were homicides.
Did your Connecticut city or town stop doing traffic enforcement during the pandemic? Are they still not doing traffic enforcement, or doing traffic enforcement at a very reduced level? If so, I want to hear from you. Send me an email at .
I will leave the faithful reader with a quandry. CT DOT has crash fatality targets that rise from 2018 through 2020 in the safety performance targets provided to the Federal Highway Administration. That seems odd. Why would CT DOT give themselves a goal for more fatal crashes, especially knowing that other states and nearby metro regions have proven approaches for reducing road carnage?
Anthony Cherolis is a former aerospace engineer, BiCi Co. founder, a Hartford resident, and the Transport Hartford Coordinator at the Center for Latino Progress. He also writes at All Famous Together
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CORRECTION: We have corrected some dates near the top of the article.