Seeking to stem an “epidemic” of often fatal motor vehicle crashes caused by wrong-way drivers, the Connecticut State Bond Commission approved $20 million Friday to install new flashing beacon warning systems at 16 locations across the state.
Funding for the system was included in the more than $850 million for transportation projects, open space conservation, economic development, and other programs approved by the commission during its third meeting of the year on Friday.
According to state officials, Connecticut has experienced 11 crashes this year caused by drivers traveling the wrong way down a one-way road or highway, resulting in 20 fatalities.
“Wrong-way crashes are not new but for whatever reason, it’s almost reaching epidemic proportions,” Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, said. “It’s almost weekly now that we hear about this.”
The new warning system will be installed at a limited number of locations around the state. Of Connecticut’s roughly 700 highway exit ramps, 16 will be outfitted with cameras designed to recognize wrong-way drivers and trigger flashing beacons to alert them that they heading in the wrong direction.
Transportation officials said they were not sure why the state had seen an increase in crashes related to wrong-way drivers. Deputy Commissioner Mark Rolfe said the conditions of the state’s infrastructure had not changed in a way that might have caused the increase. In fact, the agency has already tried measures designed to deter wrong-way drivers.
“We’ve taken a number of steps: increasing signs, increasing pavement markings, putting green arrows in instead of green lights so we’re directing people where to go,” Rolfe said. “But still the crashes continue.”
Garrett Eucalitto, another deputy commissioner of the Transportation Department, said the available data suggested that alcohol impairment played a role in most of the accidents. All but one of the crashes for which information was available involved drivers who had been drinking. Some had blood-alcohol levels as high as 0.3%, he said.
“Around 80% of them had impairment of one form or another,” Eucalitto said. “The vast majority of those were alcohol. In many cases they were at .2 BAC in some cases over .3 which is a substantially high alcohol impairment.”
Some lawmakers on the bond commission asked whether Connecticut’s recent legalization of recreational cannabis had contributed to the accidents. However, Eucalitto said available toxicology reports showed that only one of the drivers had cannabis in their system but it was unclear whether it had caused impairment and was found in addition to alcohol.
During a press conference following the meeting, Gov. Ned Lamont said he was alarmed by the number of wrong-way crashes but did not believe that lax enforcement by state police had contributed to the problem.
“I’ve just got to say that it’s shocking,” Lamont said. “You heard the descriptions in there. How this wrong-way driving is accelerating.”
“During the worst of COVID, [there was] a lot less driving and a lot less stops for reasons I think you can understand,” Lamont said of traffic enforcement. “But over the last year we’ve got the state police, they’re … making the stops, they’re patrolling. Especially on Memorial Day, July 4th, those big weekends, I think you’ll find there were plenty of infractions and plenty of stops.”
Fonfara told bond commission members that a state trooper had warned him against driving in the left lane on Connecticut highways in the middle of the night.
“[H]e said that it’s well known among troopers not to drive in the left lane past midnight because wrong-way drivers think they’re in the slow lane when in fact they’re in the fast lane,” Fonfara said. “So if troopers know this, it’s important that maybe everyone know.”
“We all know that when we get in a vehicle there is the chance of something untoward happening but I don’t think many of us think there’s going to be another vehicle coming the other way,” Fonfara said.