Local, State Officials Helping Steer Important Traffic Safety Initiatives
Familiar local officials including Newtown Police Commissioner and traffic safety scientist Neil Chaudhary, resident and State Rep Mitch Bolinsky, and State Senator Tony Hwang who represents the community as well, have all been engaged in critical traffic safety initiatives that could end up protecting countless lives, and maybe even saving a few.
Recent weeks have seen a flurry of activities around increasing dangers to Connecticut’s motoring public, along with correspondence from these officials, including a reminder from Bolinsky.
“Many of you have expressed concerns about one common, daily ritual — driving. Getting from Point A to Point B safely, without ‘close calls,’” the lawmaker noted in a March 3 memo received by The Newtown Bee.
“Today, we seem to be experiencing more stressful, dangerous daily experiences. It’s not your imagination,” Bolinsky affirmed. “Post-pandemic traffic stats bear out a higher number of crashes, injuries and fatalities. Traffic patterns and times have shifted. Courtesy has taken a back seat to rushed, more aggressive drivers moving at higher speeds, and ‘bending, traffic laws.”’
Noting that just last year, 385 people were killed and more than 1,400 injured in state traffic collisions, with almost four dozen more killed so far in 2023 (45), the local lawmaker, who has also worked as a driving instructor, pointed out that “Nearly every loss of life was avoidable.”
Bolinsky highlighted the formation and work of the state’s newly seated “Vision Zero Council,” an interagency group to focus on improving safety across all modes of transportation.
The Council includes the state departments of Transportation, Public Health, Emergency Services & Public Protection, Motor Vehicles, Education, Aging & Disability Services, Office of Early Childhood, and the Chief State’s Attorney, Bolinsky said. Its goal is recommending policies to leverage new technologies and partnerships to crash-related fatalities and injuries to pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, motorists, and passengers.
He encouraged Newtown residents to learn more by attending upcoming Vision Zero Council meetings to learn about ongoing efforts to reduce roadway injuries and fatalities in Connecticut, and how to participate in future subcommittees. (Council meetings are recorded and available to those who can’t attend during scheduled meeting times.)
Throughout 2022, Bolinsky said the Council met numerous times and formed subcommittees in Engineering, Education, Enforcement, and Equity, soliciting feedback from various stakeholders and subject matter experts. As a result of these meetings and recommendations from the subcommittees, the Council transmitted a series of policy proposals to the Connecticut General Assembly, many of which are under consideration during this current legislative session.
Proposals run the gamut, and include:
*Enacting a helmet law for all motorcycle riders and passengers. In Connecticut, 190 un-helmeted motorcycle operators or passengers were fatally injured over the past five years;
*Establishing a Fatal Collision Reduction Team to identify traffic violations that correlate with crashes, and engaging in high visibility enforcement blitzes in high frequency crash locations;
*Enacting a prohibition on open alcohol containers in motor vehicles — currently there are no statutes that prohibit simply having an open container of alcohol in the vehicle or a passenger’s consumption of alcohol while a vehicle is in operation;
*Create a Vision Zero Schools program to better educate children about road safety.
Other proposals include reviewing license suspension and traffic court processes. As many as 75 percent of suspended drivers continue to drive, and drivers with suspended licenses are disproportionately involved in hit-and-run crashes. License suspensions for failure to pay falls disproportionately on citizens with fewer means to pay.
Also promoting seat belt safety among populations with lower usage rates. According to the council, seat belts are the most effective safety intervention for motor vehicle passengers. However, surveys of Connecticut high schoolers show that Black and Hispanic students are less likely to buckle up than others.
National data shows that veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder are less likely to wear seat belts. And pregnant women may be less likely to wear seat belts correctly.
Anyone wishing to view council meeting videos including a March 7 Zoom session can do so by visiting: portal.ct.gov/DOT/VisionZeroCouncil.
Safer In Back
Last year, Bolinsky finally saw a new law he had been fighting for over a period of years requiring all vehicle occupants front and back to wear seat belts come to fruition.
And on March 10 of this year, Chaudhary, who is CEO of the traffic safety firm Preusser Research Group was front and center as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced it is teaming up with the CT Highway Safety Office, Hartford Hospital, and AAA promoting a new media campaign tied to the new statute and Rear Seat Belt Safety.
This pilot project is running now through March 31 to remind passengers of the dangers of riding unrestrained in the rear seat. The goal is to motivate passengers to buckle up in the rear seat 100 percent of the time.
Chadhary and Bolinsky have both often noted that wearing your seat belt when riding in the back reduces the likelihood of serious injury or death in the event of a crash. NHTSA noted that in 2020, the most recent year data are available, nearly 60 percent of back seat passengers who were killed in a crash were unbuckled (based on known seat belt use).
Another issue that has become a significant recent phenomenon involves wrong-way collisions on state highways.
On the same day Chaudhary was at Hartford Hospital announcing the back seat seat belt campaign, Hwang, the ranking member of the Transportation Committee, joined Governor Ned Lamont and state and federal officials to announce the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s new public awareness campaign on the dangers of wrong-way driving.
That separate campaign is part of the state’s larger strategy of reversing the catastrophic recent increase in wrong-way crashes and deaths. The campaign’s theme of “One Wrong Move” demonstrates how just one moment and one decision can be fatal. It features spots distributed through a variety of media outlets such as television, radio, digital, and billboards.
Wrong-way driving crashes in Connecticut tripled in 2022, according to Hwang. This included 13 wrong-way crashes that resulted in 23 deaths, compared to four wrong-way crashes in 2021 and only two in 2020.
“Preventing these terrible tragedies requires a holistic approach, and public awareness is a key part of that strategy,” Hwang said. “Education can be highly impactful whether it is regarding prevention of impaired driving from alcohol and marijuana or prevention of wrong-way driving. This initiative can — and likely will — save lives, and that should be our common goal as Republicans and Democrats.”
“Wrong-way driving crashes are many times more likely to be fatal than other types of car accidents,” Lamont said. “It’s shocking how quickly the number of wrong-way driving incidents has been accelerating over these last couple of years.”
Lamont said reversing this trend requires a comprehensive approach that not only involves infrastructure upgrades using advanced technology, but also requires a heightened awareness by drivers every single time they are entering a highway.
“Drivers should look, and then look again to ensure they are going in the correct direction every time they drive,” Lamont added.
“Wrong-way driving deaths in Connecticut are up 500 percent and we are doing everything we can to reverse these trends,” Transportation Commissioner Garrett Eucalitto said. “More than 80 percent of wrong-way drivers are found to be impaired. It is so important people think twice before they get behind the wheel. Driving drunk is a dangerous decision that can hurt and kill people. We need people to drive sober because one wrong move can be deadly.”
Technology Ramping Up
In July 2022, Lamont authorized the release of $20 million in state bond funding for CTDOT to purchase and install advanced wrong-way driving technology along the state’s highways and roads. This technology uses motion sensors to detect a driver entering a highway exit ramp from the wrong direction and rapidly flashes LED lights to notify them that they are driving the wrong way.
Currently, the devices are operating on seven ramps in Groton, Colchester, Milford, Montville, Southington, Windsor, and Norwich. In addition to these ramps, CTDOT plans to install this technology in dozens more locations over the course of this year.
Future installations of this technology will add the ability to notify Connecticut State Police in real time. CTDOT is also exploring additional mitigation measures, such as in-laid pavement reflectors.
Anyone who encounters a wrong-way driver should call 9-1-1 and report the location as soon as it’s safe to do so. If a driver discovers they have entered a highway going in the wrong direction, they should immediately pull into the breakdown lane and change their direction when it is safe.
The “One Wrong Move” campaign is being funded by previously allocated money CTDOT received from the Federal Highway Administration.
Reflecting on the governor’s press conference, Chaudhary said, “ I like the speed with which the administration is moving to prevent more tragedies. The flashing light/motion detectors will likely be effective at reducing some crashes.”
The Newtown traffic safety scientist added that recognition of the problem being alcohol-related and selecting on-ramps in locations likely to have more drinking drivers is a good one. He recalled saying in a 2014 interview, however, that “...if somebody’s driving with a (blood alcohol content) twice the legal limit, I’m not sure how much they’re able to pay attention to signs.”
As far as running a PSA campaign aimed at wrong-way drivers, Chaudhary was also circumspect.
“I am not convinced that will be effective,” he said. “Wrong-way driving is not a choice like it is to choose to drive distracted or speed. It is a mistake people make exacerbated by the poor decision-making and slower reaction times associated with drunk driving. I don’t see a PSA curbing drinking or causing folks to see the signs better.”
Consulting state traffic data, Chaudhary did not locate any recent incidents of wrong-way driver collisions in Newtown, but many long-time residents will likely recall in 2004, Leonard Manz, an 88-year-old organist from Newtown Congregational Church was killed when he drove his Jeep Cherokee in the wrong direction near Exit 11, and later died from injuries after his vehicle was broadsided by an eastbound vehicle.
More recently in town, Chaudhary was able to identify 34 crashes since 2015 where the offending vehicle was operating in the wrong lane.
“Thirteen of them have been injury-producing, with at least suspected injury,” Chaudhary said. “That’s 38 percent — way higher than most types of crashes. And seven of them involved impairment.”
Editor John Voket can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.