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    Sunday, April 21, 2024

    Conn. officials acknowledge ‘There’s a crisis on our highways.’ Here’s what’s being done

    With 50 deaths on Connecticut roads in only two months, Connecticut State Police announced Thursday that they have already started increased enforcement to cut down on the tragedies.

    With cars and trucks speeding along I-91 behind them, top state officials said they are targeting specific highways leading into and through Hartford, Waterbury, New Haven and Bridgeport, among others. That includes the busy I-91 corridor from New Haven to Hartford and the I-95 stretch from Bridgeport to New Haven.

    “We know where the greatest problem areas are,” said state police interim Commissioner Ronnell A. Higgins, who started his job in November. “We know that increased enforcement works. Using data, improved technology, and targeted enforcement, we will work with our other partners in government to reduce highway fatalities.’’

    The state police have allocated money that will allow them to purchase 50 new radar guns, known as “speed lasers,” that are used by troopers on highways.

    Higgins and other state officials were stunned by the recent wrong-way crash on I-95 in West Haven that caused the deaths of four Connecticut residents ranging in age from 22 to 26. The victims in the three-vehicle crash had lived in New Haven, Wolcott, Trumbull, and Norwalk. Higgins paused briefly during the press conference to acknowledge the victims.

    State transportation Commissioner Garrett Eucalitto said that agencies are working together in an effort to reduce the crashes and fatalities.

    “There is a crisis on our roadways,” Eucalitto told reporters during a press conference at a state DOT parking lot in Rocky Hill that overlooks I-91. “It’s a public health crisis.”

    Drivers, he noted, are key players in the situation, asking them to be careful on the highways.

    “Too many people are being reckless,” Eucalitto said. “We need people to slow down, drive sober, and put down the distractions.”

    Drivers have been repeatedly reminded to avoid texting on their cell phones while driving, but the practice continues.

    The state Department of Transportation has installed “wrong-way” flashing lights and detection systems at key exit ramps, and more will be installed around the state.

    “Unfortunately, as we have seen,” Eucalitto said, “it doesn’t stop everyone, and it’s not everywhere.”

    One of the ideas being discussed by lawmakers during the current legislative session is a bill that would make it easier for police to arrest motorists by reducing the threshold for drunken driving charges.

    The measure is part of a broader plan to reduce the fatalities on Connecticut roads. Legislators were stunned at 366 deaths on the roads in 2022 — about one per day. The statistics show that 2022 was the worst year on Connecticut roads since 1989. While fatalities dipped to 323 last year, the accidents are continuing this year, including fatal wrong-way crashes.

    Alcohol on the road

    In an attempt to reduce crashes, the transportation committee voted last year to lower the blood alcohol level for arrest to .05, down from the current .08. The measure passed by 21-15 with Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the bipartisan issue. The bill, however, never passed in the state House of Representatives and Senate before time expired.

    If approved, Connecticut would follow Utah as the second state in the nation at .05. The national standard is .08 that states have enacted in order to avoid losing funding for federal highway construction. As a result, Connecticut is currently at the same level as nearby New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

    In addition to alcohol, Republicans say the recent decriminalization of marijuana has made the situation worse. Drivers smoking pot can become impaired, and police have complained repeatedly that they do not have a simple test for marijuana in the way they can measure blood levels for alcohol.

    State Rep. Kathy Kennedy of Milford, the ranking Republican on the transportation committee, said at the press conference that she felt compelled to mention the impact of marijuana.

    “When we look at the data, let’s look if cannabis has impacted any of this impaired driving,” Kennedy said as she looked at her colleagues. “I have to say it. I have to bring it out. It’s just that important to me. It’s just too frightening. We don’t have all the data. … We don’t know how we test for THC in our blood levels. We do know how we test for alcohol.”

    Gov. Ned Lamont said that he has learned about the major changes that were caused in the state by the coronavirus pandemic and how things changed before COVID and after COVID.

    “You see that in terms of dangerous driving and fatalities,” Lamont said. “I’m struck by the fact that 2022 was probably the most dangerous year on the roads ever in this state and beyond. I want to say thanks to our friends in the legislature, we made a little bit of progress last year. But we have a long way to go.”

    While the state police are doing their job, Lamont said that all Connecticut residents can help in the broader effort.

    “When you’re coming home from a party, take the keys away from somebody who shouldn’t be driving,” Lamont said. “Call up Uber. … If you’re driving and you see some really erratic, dangerous driving, call 911. Alert the police. Maybe it will save that person’s life and maybe other lives as well.”

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