A wrong way sign on an I-84 exit ramp in Vernon Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

A Connecticut state representative’s death after his vehicle was struck by a wrong-way driver early Thursday morning could spark a renewed conversation around traffic safety and driver impairment laws, a leader of the legislature’s transportation panel said. 

The sudden loss of Rep. Quentin “Q” Williams, a 39-year-old Democrat from Middletown, left his friends and colleagues stunned and mourning today just hours after policymakers were sworn in for another term. 

Williams’ car was struck in a head-on collision by a vehicle driven by 27-year-old Kimede Mustafaj of Manchester, which was traveling in the wrong direction on Route 9 in Cromwell. Both drivers were pronounced dead on the scene, according to state police. 

The accident was part of a trend that caused state officials to authorize $20 million in bonding last July to begin installing a limited number of countermeasures like flashing beacon warning systems at more than a dozen locations around the state. The goal was to alert drivers who were about to head in the wrong direction down a one-way road. 

The state Transportation Department has completed those projects at 9 locations and begun to install countermeasures at another seven locations.

The projects come amid a dizzying hike in the number of deaths related to wrong-way accidents. Last year there were 13 car accidents involving wrong-way drivers in Connecticut, resulting in 23 fatalities, according to statistics provided by the DOT. Meanwhile, wrong-way crashes killed four people in 2021 and four people in 2020. Eleven motorists died in wrong-way accidents in 2019.

On Thursday, Rep. Roland Lemar, a New Haven Democrat who helps to lead the state Transportation Committee, described Williams as not just a colleague or political ally, but a true friend. Lemar, whose time in the legislature has been spent advocating for safer traffic policies, said his friend’s death hit close to home. 

“These are all preventable deaths. That’s the hard part,” Lemar said. “Every one of these fatalities for the last few years, we’ve seen it coming. We’ve seen these fatalities climbing and as shocked and sad as I am — I’m not surprised by any one of them.”

Williams’ death follows a year in which traffic-related pedestrian deaths climbed to the highest point in recent decades. And while Lemar helped to secure passage of a new pedestrian safety law just two years ago, he said Thursday the legislature often lacks the political will to tackle traffic safety head-on. 

In the coming session, Lemar said he hoped the legislature would endorse substantive policies to deter wrong-way drivers and punish more severely impaired drivers, who he said are often the cause of wrong-way collisions. 

“It’s taken too long to build the will to do real stuff on all of these [traffic] safety issues,” Lemar said. “We need to talk more strongly about, not just the wrong way drivers but we need to do a better job of re-educating our population and punishing more strongly folks who are intoxicated on our highways.”

In July, Garrett Eucalitto, the current deputy commissioner of transportation who has been nominated to be the next commissioner, told the State Bond Commission that the available data suggested that around 80% of wrong-way crashes involved an impaired driver. 

A 2021 report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that roughly 60% of wrong-way crashes nationwide involved alcohol impaired drivers, making it the single most significant factor in those accidents. Other leading factors included older motorists and driving without a passenger. The group recommended drunk driving deterrence policies as well as more visible traffic signs and driver reeducation courses.

Refresher training for older drivers was one of several policies recently recommended by the state Vision Zero Council, an interagency panel on reducing traffic-related deaths and injuries that was established by the 2021 pedestrian safety law. The group also recommended that Connecticut join most other states in prohibiting open alcohol containers in vehicles. 

Lemar said his panel would be carefully considering traffic safety policies this session and he hoped this week’s loss of a colleague would convince others in the legislature to do the same. 

“I’m hoping a positive from this will be that folks finally take seriously the safety countermeasures that we need to put in place to protect all users,” Lemar said. “We have to continue to redouble our efforts because it’s impacting families across Connecticut and this one’s impacting our family in the legislature.”