A crosswalk outside the Legislative Office Building in Hartford. Credit: Hugh McQuaid file photo

With the deaths of two people who were struck and killed by a car in Stamford on Saturday, Connecticut logged its 61st and 62nd traffic-related pedestrian deaths, tying a recent milestone set just two years ago.

The Stamford collision occurred early Saturday morning, killing two 25-year-old residents as they were attempting to use a crosswalk. According to the Hartford Courant, Stamford police apprehended the driver after he left the scene of the incident on foot.

The deaths and others like them are part of a rising trend both in Connecticut and across the nation. With more than three weeks remaining in the year, advocates and officials here expect pedestrian fatalities to further surpass a recent high bar set in 2020, when 61 people were killed by motorists. The number rises to 67 when we include people on bicycles and scooters.

That was the high water mark for pedestrian deaths for more than two decades, according to data from the state Transportation Department, which indicate that 63 people were killed by motorists in 1994. Pedestrian fatalities have climbed as high as 90 in 1978, according the DOT.

Amy Watkins, program coordinator for the Watch for Me CT pedestrian safety campaign at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, said this year’s uptick in accidents and fatalities are expected to continue through the next few weeks. 

“November to January are the deadliest months for pedestrians because of the shorter days,” Watkins said Monday. “We are regularly losing more than one person a week to this crisis.”

There are many theories as to what drives the increase in pedestrian fatalities around the country. The COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting lockdowns spurred a surge in bad driving habits and enforcement of traffic laws declined for a time, but the trend was already developing before 2020. 

Between 2008 and 2015, pedestrian deaths ranged from 20 to 40 per year, Watkins said. In 2016, they rose to more than 50 and have remained elevated since, she said. 

“It’s speeding, distractions, impairment,” Watkins said. “It’s the size of our vehicle fleet as more people get SUVs and light trucks. Those are more deadly vehicles because of the way that they impact a person. Instead of hitting at their lower limbs and sending them on top of the car, they’re hitting people in their midsection and sending them under the car where they can get run over.”

Advocates and policymakers who study the issue agree the most effective way to combat the problem is to slow down motorists, either through more aggressive enforcement of traffic laws or changes to the design of Connecticut’s transportation infrastructure. 

The issue has long been a top priority for Rep. Roland Lemar, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs the legislature’s Transportation Committee. In 2021, Lemar spearheaded passage of a new pedestrian safety law, which contained a number of provision. It made pedestrian-friendly changes to crosswalk policies and gave towns greater flexibility to set their own speed limits.

But the bill, which passed with bipartisan support, came with compromises. Notably, a provision which had been intended to allow pilot programs to test out speed enforcement cameras around work zones, hospitals and schools was nerfed. A limited program testing the cameras near highway work zones is expected to begin next year. 

Lemar said Monday the General Assembly has lacked the political will to endorse traffic enforcement cameras due to their unpopularity among members of the public. He intends to revisit the camera issue in hopes of passing a broader pilot program during next year’s session. 

“Knowing that it’s not going to get better unless we take dramatic actions, I think residents will understand — and they may not like it — but I think they will understand why we have to do more,” Lemar said. “There was opposition to seat belt laws, opposition to speed limits — basic roadway safety provisions when they came into play. Oftentimes, it takes politicians acting against the popular opinions of their constituents when it’s the right thing to do.”

Despite this year’s grim statistics, Lemar, who was recently reappointed to his position as House chair of the Transportation Committee, said there were reasons for optimism in the coming years. 

For one thing, the legislature expects to soon receive recommendations from the Vision Zero Council, an interagency panel created by the pedestrian safety law and tasked with eliminating transportation-related fatalities and severe injuries. 

The working group has been chaired by Garrett Eucalitto, a Transportation Department deputy commissioner, who Gov. Ned Lamont recently tapped to lead the agency. Lemar said he expected Eucalitto’s promotion to be “transformative” for the agency. 

In a statement Monday, Eucalitto said 2022 had been one of the deadliest years in recent memory both for pedestrians and motorists. He said the state Transportation Department was implementing safer systems including updated crosswalk signals and narrower roads designed to slow drivers.

“CTDOT will continue to work on improving safety in communities across the state through the implementation of proven safety countermeasures,” Eucalitto said.

Meanwhile, the federal infrastructure funding bill passed last year by Congress promises to provide Connecticut with potentially billions to invest in projects to improve the state’s roadways. Lemar said the money could give Connecticut an opportunity to make its streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

“But only if we incorporate those principles from the beginning and only if we hold our [Regional Councils of Governments] and our local communities to a high standard and only if we place that burden on ourselves at the state level,” Lemar said.

In the meantime, Watkins encouraged drivers and pedestrians to be more cognizant of each other.

“Drivers, these are people trying to get home to their families. These are other humans, loved by their family members and their friends. You have to share the road and have some respect out there,” Watkins said. “For pedestrians, they need to remember that they shouldn’t leave their safety in the hands of others.”