Credit: Hugh McQuaid file photo

The Senate gave final passage late Wednesday to a host of traffic law changes intended to make Connecticut roadways safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. The bill includes provisions to ease crosswalk use and increase distracted driving fines. 

Senators approved the legislation on a 32 to 3 vote. The House passed the bill unanimously last week after removing controversial provisions that would have allowed test programs to install speed enforcement cameras around work zones, hospitals and schools.

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The bill is a wide-ranging attempt to curb an increase in traffic fatalities involving pedestrians and bicyclists. Sen. Will Haskell, a Westport Democrat who is co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, said 65 pedestrians were killed in auto accidents last year and traffic fatalities climbed to 308, up from 249 the previous year.

“When transportation planning is done poorly and not done with people in mind, well then it can have very deadly consequences,” Haskell said at the outset of a short debate Wednesday. “Speeding, distracted driving are too often the reason for these accidents.”

The bill contains several long-sought changes to state traffic laws including removing a requirement for pedestrians to step into the road in order to signal their intent to use a crosswalk and require motorists to yield. Under the bill they can wave from the side of the road. The legislation also allows towns and cities greater flexibility to set their own speed limits without seeking approval from the state. 

When the bill passed the House last week, Rep. Roland Lemar, a New Haven Democrat and Transportation co-chairman, called the proposal the culmination of years of work by his panel. 

“There has been so much input into this bill over the last few years, I feel like we have a product that I feel proud of, that I feel will address what we are seeing on Connecticut roadways– it’s not just a Connecticut issue it’s a national one — but this allows our state to create the type of pedestrian safety zones and traffic safety laws that will benefit all of our pedestrians,” Lemar said.

In the Senate, there was bipartisan support for most of the provisions, which include a new prohibition on “dooring,” a term that describes opening or leaving open a vehicle door in a way that physically impedes bicyclists or pedestrians. 

“From somebody who comes from a very populated tourist area in the summer, I can attest to many of the things that are within this bill as far as pedestrian safety and how people open their car doors and the idea of yielding to people on bicycles how important that is,” Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said.

However, Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, had concerns about the dooring provision, saying that narrow roads could create situations where motorists inadvertently impeded cyclists. Champagne, a former police officer who ultimately voted for the legislation, said it can sometimes be difficult to determine which parties are at fault in traffic incidents.

“I just want to make sure that we’re not passing a law that automatically says that the person that opened the door is responsible,” Champagne said.

Haskell said there was nothing automatic about the law, which was intended to give police discretion on enforcement. 

“I don’t think that we’re legislating anything on an automatic level but we are asking, as many other states have, that drivers and passengers seriously account for the safety of others when they do open their door,” Haskell said. 

The bill will now go to Gov. Ned Lamont for consideration.