The legislature’s Transportation Committee heard testimony Monday on a package of traffic safety proposals including broader use of enforcement cameras in the wake of one of the deadliest years on record for Connecticut roadways.
The set of proposals come from an interagency panel called the Vision Zero Council, which is tasked with reducing traffic-related deaths. According to the group’s chair, Transportation Commissioner Garrett Eucalitto, the recommendations come at a critical time for Connecticut.
In 2022, 239 motorists and passengers were killed in crashes while 75 pedestrians were killed by vehicles. Those numbers represent a 41.5% and 31% increase respectively over the last five years, according to Eucalitto.
“2022 has been the deadliest year on our roadways in decades,” Eucalitto said in written testimony filed for the committee’s public hearing. “My hope is that the recommendations from the Vision Zero Council will elevate this alarming public health crisis and help reverse these increasing trends on our roadways.”
The committee is considering 18 recommendations from the Vision Zero Council, all aimed at improving the safety of Connecticut roads and reducing the deaths and injuries of motorists, pedestrians and cyclists.
Among the proposals are some concepts that have been considered by the legislature for years. For instance, the panel recommended expanded use of automated traffic enforcement cameras. Although the legislature has allowed some limited study of speed cameras near highway work zones, the panel has called for permitting the tools at intersections with a history of crashes or speeding.
Other proposals include driver reeducation policies, requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets in Connecticut and changing the state’s open container law to prohibit passengers from consuming alcohol in an operational vehicle.
Though many of the proposals have failed to gain traction in the past, proponents hope this year will be different. In addition to 2022’s staggering number of roadway fatalities, state legislators lost a friend and colleague this year. Rep. Quentin “Q” Williams, D-Middletown, was killed in an accident involving a wrong-way driver earlier this month as he was returning home from the governor’s inaugural ball.
Sen. Christine Cohen, a Guilford Democrat who co-chairs the Transportation Committee, referenced the 39-year-old lawmaker’s death during a press conference Monday.
“We are no strangers to the tremendous grief that one feels when a loved one is ripped away from us so suddenly,” Cohen said.
“This is something that we have been working on collectively as a Connecticut General Assembly for a number of years, but certainly, as we all know, with a renewed sense of conviction and as a governing body, we certainly need more tools in our toolbox,” Cohen said.
Policies like enforcement cameras have met resistance in the past from organizations like the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, who worried the cameras would disproportionately impact residents in densely populated areas.
Rep. Roland Lemar, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said one of the supporters of the recommendations made a good point about recovering a ticket in the mail and avoiding an unwanted encounter with an officer. He said an electronic ticket would be preferable.
The legislature has also long resisted changing Connecticut’s open container law. On Monday, Rep. Tom O’Dea, R-New Canaan, argued the state should focus on changing its laws to give police more flexibility to stop motorists they suspect of using cannabis while driving.
“Have you ever heard of someone becoming intoxicated by a passenger drinking while they are driving?” O’Dea asked Eucalitto. “I’ve never heard of that before, yet I have heard of people becoming impacted and high from people next to them smoking marijuana.”
Senate President Martin Looney said there was good reason for Connecticut’s law prohibiting police from using the smell of cannabis as reason for pulling over motorists.
“Too often that’s sort of put down as a boilerplate justification for making that stop,” Looney said.
Looney and Cohen said the number of recent deaths on the state’s roads may add some momentum to proposals that have historically failed to pass. More than 100 supporters filed testimony urging lawmakers to pass the policies recommended by the Vision Zero Council.
In written testimony submitted to the Transportation Committee, Kate Rozen, an advocate and Woodbridge resident, recalled the relative safety of riding her bike during the early days of the pandemic when Connecticut roads were less populated by vehicles.
“I now see on a daily basis the perfect storm of dangerous conditions- poor road design that privileges those in a car, heavier and larger motor vehicles that again privilege those inside the vehicle and drivers who have lost sense of the responsibility that goes hand in hand with operating a car,” Rozen wrote.
Lemar said each of the proposals recommended by the group have been adapted elsewhere in the nation.
“All of them are taking best practices from across the country and introducing them to Connecticut, where we are confronting an epidemic of pedestrian and traffic fatalities that are entirely preventable,” Lemar said. “They’re hard choices for this legislature, hard choices for this committee, sometimes politically unpopular but we wouldn’t be the first state in any regard to move forward with these safety measures.”