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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Improving highway law enforcement

    Few things in life will increase your heart rate more quickly than rounding a turn or coming to the bottom of a hill in your car and, at the very last moment, seeing a well-hidden police cruiser with a cop pointing a speed gun directly at you.

    Your immediate, panicked reflex is to hit the brakes and simultaneously glance at your speedometer to see how fast you're going or — more likely — how far over the speed limit. (Seriously, who drives the speed limit these days, other than the driver in front of you when you're in a hurry?)

    You hold your breath, look in your rearview mirror and pray the cruiser doesn't pull out after you with lights flashing. If it doesn't, you breathe a sigh of relief, say a quick thank-you to St. Christopher, the patron saint of travel, and resolve to obey the speed limit ... for at least the next minute or two, anyway.

    In Connecticut, even casual observers have noticed that speed traps — once very conspicuous on state and local roads and highways — have virtually disappeared. That's been especially true on our outdated interstate highways where the most egregious violations often take place. Factor in Connecticut's transportation infrastructure being rated worst or among the worst in the entire country, and you've got a recipe for disaster.

    Taking action

    Indeed, the recent spike in fatalities on Connecticut's roads has finally prompted second-term Gov. Ned Lamont to take action. Earlier this month, Lamont held a press conference with his transportation and public safety commissioners at which he promised more vigorous enforcement of the state's motor vehicle laws — most notably aimed at speeders, reckless and impaired drivers. OK, but what took so long?

    The number of traffic deaths in Connecticut rose to 366 — a 30-plus year high — in 2022. And the 60 fatalities as of March 4 of this year is ahead of that pace, according to the state Department of Transportation.

    Normally, stricter enforcement of traffic laws would be unsettling for those of us with a heavy right foot, though good news in the quest to get dangerous drunks off the highways before they kill and maim again. However, given the volume of dangerous drivers — especially on our interstates — the promised crackdown is long overdue.

    Speed traps and most other traffic law enforcement in Connecticut has dropped off significantly for a variety of reasons in recent years. Foremost among them on our highways was the gross understaffing of the Connecticut State Police, particularly during the two-term tenure of Lamont's predecessor, Democrat Gov. Dannel Malloy.

    Based on their budgeting during those dark years, enforcement of traffic laws must not have been a high priority for Malloy and the Democratic-controlled legislature. The already-dwindled ranks of the state police was far below the statutory minimum of 1,248 troopers — more than 25 percent less than the one-time statutory limit in recent years.

    Let that sink in: at a time when traffic fatalities in the state have been nearing all-time highs, state police staffing has been about one-quarter below minimum levels. And staffing in the state police special traffic unit is but a fraction of what it was five years ago.

    Easy way out

    For his part, Malloy took action while he was in office to address the understaffing, but it wasn't what you'd expect from someone thinking logically, let alone the elected leader of the state. Instead of undertaking an initiative to bolster the ranks of the state police through enhanced recruitment and retention, Malloy took the easy way out: he merely did away with the statutory minimum.

    Problem solved, at least for Malloy and his bean counters. Of course, that only made it more dangerous for those of us who take our lives into our hands every time we venture out onto I-95 or I-395 in these parts, the parking lot that is I-95 in Fairfield County, or the mishmash at which I-91 and I-84 converge in Hartford, one of the most dangerous highway interchanges in the country.

    In the midst of all this, an independent audit last year suggested Connecticut State Police were purposely submitting inaccurate racial profiling data to make the number of traffic stops seem more balanced. With this being announced at the height of the brainless defund the police movement, law enforcement in Connecticut was being viewed more skeptically than ever.

    Turns out, the suggestion that state police were deliberately skewing the racial profiling data was wrong, according to an independent investigation ordered by Lamont. The inaccuracies were more a result of sloppy bookkeeping and overlapping badge assignments, the investigation found, and of the 130 troopers who were initially implicated in the audit, only six wound up being referred for further investigation.

    Rank-and-file state police were at first relieved, then rightfully furious at the wrongful presumption of guilt among politicians, activists, news media and much of the general public. Morale, already at an all-time low, declined further. The whole thing didn't exactly make troopers want to run out and write more traffic tickets during their shifts.

    Mixed messaging

    It remains to be seen if stepped-up enforcement of traffic laws will reduce the number of accidents and fatalities on Connecticut roads and highways.

    One thing is clear, however: the messaging coming from state officials in Hartford seems conflicted. On one hand, we want fewer accidents and fewer casualties on our highways, but until recently the state hasn't been willing to fund adequate levels of staffing for those enforcing traffic laws. Maybe the enhanced compensation package being offered to state police will help.

    Our legislators are also considering a bill — again — that would reduce from .08 to .05 the blood alcohol content required to charge a driver with drunk driving. This comes three years after the same people in Hartford decriminalized recreational possession and use of marijuana. It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so dangerous.

    I know I'd feel safer riding with someone who's had a second beer or glass of wine with dinner than with someone who's just smoked some Chemdawg or Maui Wowie. But the state makes money from legalized pot and saves money from under-staffing its police. And in Hartford, sadly, money trumps everything, even public safety.

    Bill Stanley, a former reporter at The Day, is a retired vice president of Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.

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