Roland Lemar
Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, during a House session on May 23, 2023 Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Connecticut municipalities would be permitted to use automated traffic enforcement cameras under a package of roadway safety proposals passed Tuesday by the House after lawmakers scrapped provisions requiring motorcycle helmets and banning open alcohol containers in vehicles.

On a 104-46 vote, the chamber approved a set of recommendations from the state Vision Zero Council, an interagency panel designed to advance policies to reduce traffic-related deaths in Connecticut. The proposal received support and opposition from members of both parties. 

During a five-hour debate, Rep. Roland Lemar, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs the Transportation Committee, said the more than a dozen provisions of the bill would save lives. 

“Each of the issues that remain before us in this bill will have a dramatic impact on the quality of life for so many folks who live in our communities, who drive on our roadways, and who’ve experienced remarkable tragedy as a result of, frankly, a behavioral norm that has changed in Connecticut,” Lemar said. 

The bill follows one of the deadliest years in decades on Connecticut roads. In 2022, at least 380 people died on the state’s roadways, according to the Department of Transportation. Another 80 had been killed this year as of last month. 

More than one lawmaker spoke about a pervasive sense of lawlessness on Connecticut roads. Rep. Kathy Kennedy, R-Milford, recounted passing the wreckage of one such crash on a recent drive to Hartford. 

“[The driver was] traveling too fast, perhaps. Impaired, perhaps. Irresponsibility. Recklessness,” Kennedy said. “I don’t know if this bill will stop this but we have to start somewhere.”

The bill which advanced to the Senate on Tuesday contained a controversial policy long sought by traffic safety advocates: an option for towns and cities to employ speed cameras and red light cameras to enforce traffic ordinances. 

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

After an obligatory warning period, the proposal would allow fines of up to $50 on a first offense and $75 on subsequent violations. Speeding fines would be triggered by vehicles traveling at least 10 miles per hour over the limit. The fees would be mailed to the owner of a vehicle found in violation in a process that Lemar likened to a parking ticket.

Under the proposal, municipalities seeking to use the devices would need to hold public hearings, adopt a local ordinance on the cameras, draft a plan to use them in areas likely to improve traffic safety, then get that plan approved by the state Department of Transportation. Municipal plans would expire after three years and towns wishing to continue operating cameras would need to submit a new plan for state approval. 

The bill does not prescribe a specific vendor which participating towns must use to implement the program, but does outline a set of guidelines they must comply with. 

Opponents of the camera policy argued the bill raised due process concerns. Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, unsuccessfully tried to remove the camera provisions from the bill. He debated scenarios in which a person was ticketed after being waved through an intersection by a police officer or fined after their car was stolen. 

“I certainly would be in favor of a task force but I think this is a bridge too far at this point given the significant due process concerns,” he said.

Rep. Tom Delnicki, R-South Windsor, suggested that red light cameras may contribute to accidents.

“Quite frankly, it leads people to slam their brakes on and make an emergency panic stop if they’re not paying total attention because they don’t want to get the fine,” Delnicki said.

Rep. Larry Butler, D-Waterbury, told colleagues he had once opposed the enforcement cameras but had changed his mind because driver behavior in Connecticut had worsened throughout recent years. 

“Let’s give it a chance because nobody has given us an alternative to this,” Butler said. 

However, traffic enforcement cameras have been a contentious issue among state lawmakers for years and have prompted privacy concerns and opposition from the Connecticut ACLU, which has framed the devices as extensions of police surveillance. 

Lemar argued the bill had been crafted with privacy concerns in mind. It prohibits the release of data and requires the deletion of personally identifiable data 30 days after a fine is adjudicated. He said the bill attempted to strike a difficult balance. 

“I want people to slow down. I want people to obey red lights,” he said. He described “devastating” crashes that impacted residents who were walking to school or crossing a road to attend a soccer game. 

“Yes, we would authorize, in a limited way, some automated enforcement under very specific criteria for a very limited period of time because this is a hard choice we need to make,” Lemar said. “There need to be new behavioral norms in Connecticut. What we’ve seen on our roadways, frankly, is shocking.”

The bill’s camera elements would build on a limited pilot program, launched in April, which has employed cameras to enforce speed limits through work zones on the state’s highways. As of two weeks ago, the Transportation Department could not yet provide statistics on the implementation of that program. 

On Tuesday, lawmakers amended the traffic safety bill to remove two other provisions, which come before the legislature nearly every year. One would have required the use of helmets by all motorcycle operators. Currently, Connecticut only requires anyone under the age of 18 to wear a helmet while on a motorcycle.

Another scrapped policy would have prohibited open alcohol containers in a moving vehicle. Connecticut is one of just a handful of states where passengers are allowed to consume alcohol in an operational vehicle.

Other elements that remained in the bill included a provision that would allow judicial officials to order motorists who contest traffic tickets to attend driver safety courses. Another section would task the DOT with studying whether to allow cyclists to treat a stop sign as a yield sign and whether Connecticut should continue to observe a “right turn on red” policy. Much of the bill would have passed without controversy.

“There’s a lot in this bill,” Lemar said near the end of the debate. “I know — I know that we could have run 90% of this and got a unanimous vote, but the program that we put in here with respect to cameras is important in helping to shift behavioral norms.”