Unsafe and unenforceable, but not on the record

It was like a nightmare in bright daylight: the sensation of being stopped dead— or worse, stopped and about to be dead — in the middle of I-95.

The Day sent a writer and a videographer to record what it's like to obey the speed limits of 50, 55 or 65 miles per hour on sections of Interstate 95 from the Gold Star Bridge in New London to the Baldwin Bridge in Old Lyme.

At midday on the sunny, cold Friday that kicked off the New Year's weekend The Day team traveled with four mounted video cameras — on the dashboard looking ahead, on right and left front window mounts and, in the back seat, one that gave the same perspective as the rearview mirror.

Heading south on cruise control, first at the posted 55 mph and then at the reduced 50 mph from Exit 80 past Exit 74, The Day cameras recorded all the vehicles that zoomed past. At 50 mph, it felt as though the car was not moving at all, while drivers came swiftly up on the rear, made the decision that they could not drive that slowly, and went around.

The Day team drove 12 minutes and 30 seconds southbound and was passed by 70 vehicles. They drove 13 minutes and 20 seconds northbound and the car was passed by 55 vehicles.

If troopers had been out issuing tickets, they could have legitimately stopped 125 drivers on the round trip between Old Lyme to New London. But they are not there, and it is obvious why they could not work some stretches of the highway corridor: There is no safe place to pull over a driver on a bend, a hill, or a nonexistent shoulder. Jersey barriers in the verges, added in a safety overhaul begun after a multiply fatal 2007 crash, add to the miles of roadside where a driver and an officer would be endangered by being to close to the traffic.

None of this will surprise anyone who drives that section of highway. Traveling I-95 has been well documented as high-risk, and as a result it is also high-tension. The drivers who passed The Day vehicle were probably not all habitual scofflaws but rather people whose instincts tell them it is far safer to keep pace with the traffic flow than risk being hit from behind. It is safer to break the law.

That has to be reversed, or the unacceptable rate of crashes will never go down. Posting the limits and not enforcing them is winking at reality. Enforce them with the technology now available to do so at the least risk to drivers and police.

Nine years ago this month state highway officials presented to the public their plans for improving the interstate between New London and Old Lyme. For many years since they have milled the road surface and installed the barriers in the middle and on the edges of the roadway. But they could not, even in the name of safety, do as citizens asked: widen or straighten the road or close down a ramp. Those expensive remedies still await funding for a major overhaul of I-95. And they could not install recording cameras to capture the image of speeding vehicles and their license numbers.

It wasn't that the technology was unavailable; rather, in the election year of 2008, legislators had no appetite for recording people's moving violations. Although other states and some cities were doing it, some Connecticut voters disliked the idea of having their movements on record. Connecticut highway cameras broadcast live feeds of moving or stalled traffic, but they do not record.

State police, whose Troop E and F commanders have already stepped up in response to urgent pleas from the first selectmen and first responders of East Lyme and Old Lyme, need all the tools they can get to enforce the laws. Revisit the idea of recording cameras and a process for issuing infractions by mail to those who speed.

What's the greater social ill: being recorded and penalized for breaking the speed limit or dying in your car because another driver didn't have to fear getting a ticket?

Visit www.theday.com to watch the video of driving the speed limit on I-95.  

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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