Tony Hwang and Garrett Eucalitto
Sen. Tony Hwang and Transportation Commissioner Garrett Eucalitto talk outside the Senate chamber Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

A package of roadway safety policies including a municipal option for automated traffic enforcement cameras is headed for the governor’s desk following a Tuesday night vote of the Senate. 

The chamber voted 27 – 9 to pass the recommendations from the state Vision Zero Council, a multiagency panel headed by the Department of Transportation commissioner and tasked with advancing policies to reduce traffic-related deaths in Connecticut.

“These fatalities due to traffic crashes are often preventable,” Transportation Committee co-chair Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, said. “In fact, the belief is that they are all preventable. Whether you’re on a bicycle or you’re a pedestrian or you’re driving in a car. We want to do all that we can… to ensure that you are on those roadways in a safe manner.” 

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

The recommendations include an option for towns and cities to employ speed cameras and red light cameras to enforce local traffic ordinances. Connecticut lawmakers have considered enforcement camera bills for more than a decade and — aside from a limited pilot program underway in highway work zones — have historically declined to embrace the idea.

However, this year’s bill comes as state policymakers grapple with historic numbers of roadway fatalities. At least 380 people died on the state’s roadways last year, according to the Department of Transportation. Another 80 had been killed this year as of April. 

Cohen said members of her committee had become familiar with the traffic camera debate over the years.

“It’s something that has become a little bit contentious and controversial and because of that, the Transportation Committee membership has really taken a hard look at what automated enforcement should look like in the state of Connecticut,” she said. 

Municipalities that choose to adopt traffic camera programs would be required to hold public hearings and submit plans to the DOT demonstrating that the cameras would be installed in areas likely to improve traffic safety. Approved plans would be good for three years, after which towns would be required to seek state approval again. 

Each plan would include a warning period after which fines would range from $50 on a first offense to $75 for subsequent violations. Municipalities would be free to choose a vendor to implement the program so long as they comply with a set of guidelines outlined by the bill.

Traffic cameras have met pushback from groups including the Connecticut ACLU over concerns about police surveillance, privacy and due process. Some of those concerns were restated during the Senate debate. 

Though he supported the bill, Sen. Herron Gaston, D-Bridgeport, worried the cameras would have the unintended consequence of disproportionately fining minority drivers.

“Just as traffic deaths and injuries disproportionately fall upon minority communities, so does automated traffic enforcement have the potential to have a disproportionate impact on those same communities,” Gaston said. 

Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, voted against the bill over concerns about automating too many government functions. 

“That’s why I’m voting ‘no.’ Not because I think I have all the answers — I don’t. And not because I’m fearful of technology, although a little bit is. I am,” Kissel said. “I am a little distrustful of government when it gets authority that isn’t really controlled by human beings that can make certain judgment calls.” 

Sen. Tony Hwang of Fairfield, the ranking Republican on the Transportation Committee, sought to allay some of those concerns. 

“This is an issue that has been heavily debated, heavily reviewed and ultimately crafted to account for the many concerns that were presented,” Hwang said.

Other provisions of the bill included a provision that would allow judicial officials to order motorists who contest traffic tickets to attend driver safety courses. Another section tasks the Transportation Department 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.

The legislation had originally included additional elements including a requirement that all motorcycle operators wear helmets and a prohibition on open alcohol containers in moving vehicles. Those policies were removed by the House prior to passage.