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    Saturday, April 01, 2023

    The right way to avoid deadly crashes

    Southeastern Connecticut has had more than its share of wrong-way drivers, those people who mistakenly enter a limited-access highway in the opposite direction to the traffic flow. A number of drivers here have had the appalling experience of seeing cars head right for other vehicles at highway rates of speed, and keep on going until they crash.

    It is an unforgiving error. The chances of dying in a head-to-head collision with a wrong-way vehicle are estimated to be 100 times higher than in other crashes. Those horrible odds apply both to the errant drivers and to the drivers and passengers of the vehicles they hit.

    A sizable increase in crashes caused by wrong-way drivers in the past year, including one that resulted in the death of a state legislator on Route 9 in Cromwell, has touched fellow legislators and Gov. Ned Lamont. State Rep. Quentin Williams died shortly after midnight on his way home from the first day of the 2023 General Assembly and his swearing-in for his third term. It was the evening of Lamont’s inauguration.

    A Middletown Democrat and the first Black person elected from the 100th House District, “Q” Williams was popular with his colleagues and had just been appointed to a leadership role.

    Last July, the state Bonding Commission had approved $20 million for a public awareness campaign and preventive technology, and last week the governor introduced the slogan “One Wrong Move.” It is an apt phrase for recognizing that a split-second of bad judgment can be fatal. Besides increasing awareness, the Lamont administration will use the funding to buy and install advanced wrong-way driving technology at multiple entry points to the state’s highways.

    The expanded effort builds on a pilot program in a few locations, including Route 2 at Exit 17 eastbound in Colchester and I-95 at Exit 88 southbound in Groton. It comes after a record-setting 23 deaths in 13 wrong-way driving crashes in 2022. The year before there were four deaths and in 2020 -- the pandemic year when many people were not even on the highways -- three died.

    Nationally, between 400 and 500 people die in wrong-way crashes annually. Twenty-three deaths in little Connecticut would equal more than 5 percent of the national total. Proportionately, that is high. Southeastern Connecticut has also had more than its share on Interstate 95, going back a decade. Between 2019 and 2020, seven people died in Stonington alone.

    Up to 80 percent of the incidents involve an impaired -- potentially intoxicated -- driver. Impairment is such a critical factor that one criterion for prioritizing a given entrance ramp to have the technology is proximity to a bar or restaurant, along with crash history; multiple, potentially confusing ramps at the same location; lack of lighting; and the absence of guide rails or raised medians separating the ramps.

    The technology being installed will bring the number of upgraded entrance ramps to 16, including I-95 at Exit 87 southbound in Groton. Motion sensors will detect a driver entering a highway exit ramp from the wrong direction and flash LED lights to notify them that they are driving the wrong way. DOT says future installations will add the ability to notify Connecticut State Police in real time, a feature already in use in some states. Inlaid pavement reflectors are also a future possibility.

    The DOT announcement also came with advice for drivers. If you see someone traveling in the wrong direction, call 911 as soon as safely possible. If you are the wrong-way driver, immediately pull into the breakdown lane, and change direction only when it is safe to do so. DOT did not add this advice, but we will: Don’t drive while impaired. Your ability to quickly move to the breakdown lane may be too slow, and people, including you, are likely to die.

    Last summer, state Sen. Heather Somers reminded the DOT commissioner of the multiple wrong-way crashes in the region including Stonington, and requested that more of the technology be put to use here. If indeed the number of crashes now goes down, southeastern Connecticut needs more of the life-saving technology here.

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