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Region sees spate of serious motor vehicle crashes

At least six people have been killed in motor vehicle accidents in and around southeastern Connecticut in the last two weeks, as rates of fatal crashes continue to climb nationwide.

According to nationwide data collected by the National Safety Council, the estimated total motor vehicle deaths for 2020 is 42,060 — up 8% from 2019 despite markedly fewer cars being on the road during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Connecticut saw a 50% increase in the number of fatal crashes in February 2021 compared to February 2019, according to the National Safety Council.

New London County has been on the lower end of the state's spike. According to Amy Parmenter, spokesperson for AAA in the greater Hartford area, "the bottom line is that while Connecticut saw a sharp increase in fatal crashes last year (2020) compared to 2019, the opposite seems to be true for New London County."

Parmenter said that according to the University of Connecticut's crash data repository, there were 19 fatal crashes in New London County last year, compared to 30 in 2019.

She said that while it is difficult to determine an exact cause for the region's lower crash rates, "it appears that perhaps there was far less traffic in the southeast part of the state during the pandemic, perhaps because the casinos were closed and there was limited travel across the (Rhode Island) border."

However, at least six people lost their lives in motor vehicle collisions in the last 16 days and another several were severely injured.

David Mack, 55, of Jewett City was killed on May 2 when his car crossed the double line, hit a guard rail and struck a tree in Griswold. A 17-year-old boy in his car suffered serious, life-threatening injuries.

Craig Young, 24, of Lisbon was seriously injured when his motorcycle was struck by a Jeep in Voluntown on May 1. He was taken by Life Star helicopter to Rhode Island Hospital in Providence with serious injuries.

Norwich Public Utilities employee Raymond W. "Bill" Coughlin, 60, of Canterbury died on April 26 when his Jeep crossed to the wrong side of the road, struck a stone wall and flipped.

Leander N. Ortega, 29, of Boston was killed on April 25 in a three-car crash on Interstate 95 in Stonington that also left a Cranston, R.I., woman injured and sent three children to the hospital.

Two people were seriously injured in a one-car accident in Preston on April 24, including a 15-year-old who was flown to the hospital by Life Star. The car they were in had rolled over and struck several trees.

The same day, Angelo F. Pascuzzi, 60, of Westerly and New Britain died when his motorcycle collided with a pickup truck in Westerly. The crash also left a 50-year-old woman from Westerly with serious injuries.

Ramon Pantoja, 37, of Norwich was pronounced dead at the scene after his car was struck head-on in a crash between two cars and a tractor-trailer on Route 32 in Franklin on April 23.

On April 22, Michelle L. McMullen, 52, of Norwich was pronounced dead at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital after being involved in a two-vehicle crash in Mystic. She had worked at Hartford Healthcare. A 19-year-old man from Mystic was injured in the crash.

In 2020, the average number of miles driven decreased by 13.2% compared to 2019; it dropped by another 12.1% in February 2021 compared to the same time last year. But, despite the fact that people are driving less, the number of crashes reported has spiked.

"We should be able to show a significant safety benefit from having less traffic," the council said in a statement released in January. "Instead, in the midst of the worst health crisis in more than a century, we are experiencing even deadlier roadways — and motor vehicle crashes have been a persistent public health threat."

Parmenter said statewide, there was "absolutely a significant increase in crashes in 2020" compared to 2019. "There has been a sharp increase in fatal crashes in Connecticut and sharp increase in speeding," she said.

She said the increase in the number of crashes could be attributed to a number of factors, but the most obvious cause has been drivers exceeding the speed limit.

"The 100% sure one thing that played a role was an increase in speeding," she said. "It's possible with the wide open roadways, less traffic, maybe less law enforcement on the roads during the pandemic — all of these things combined to give those who were willing to take a risk the opportunity to do so."

Parmenter said AAA also has noticed a sharp increase in single-vehicle crashes, which points to speed or distracted driving as a factor.

"There was even a reduction in seat belt use; perhaps people did not feel as vulnerable with fewer vehicles on the road," she said. "It's a combination of factors and it's possible that those who were out driving were people who were in general more likely to be risk takers."

State police at Troop E in Montville didn't report any increase in serious or fatal accident rates last year. In 2019 there were two fatal crashes and three with serious injuries; in 2020 there were two fatal crashes and two with serious injuries.

But in the first four months of 2021, they have reported four fatal crashes and five accidents with serious injuries.

In Stonington, there has been one fatal motor vehicle accident so far in 2021 and two more with serious injuries. The rates were about the same in 2019: three motor vehicle accidents were reported with serious injuries in addition to one fatal crash.

In 2020, however, the number of accidents with serious injuries spiked to seven, with one fatal crash reported.

In Norwich, there have been no fatal crashes so far in 2021. Sgt. Harrison J. Formiglio said city police could not confidently identify any increases or decreases in fatal crashes over the past few years. Three were recorded in 2020 and two in 2019.


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