Despite far less traffic, more pedestrians died on Connecticut roads in 2020 than a year before
Despite a pandemic-driven reduction in overall traffic last year, pedestrian deaths in Connecticut have continued their deadly climb.
“Not just in Connecticut, but throughout the country, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of pedestrian ... fatalities,” said Rep. Roland Lemar, the New Haven Democrat who leads the General Assembly’s transportation committee.
Passing new laws to make the roads safer for walkers, runners and cyclists — including giving towns the ability to lower speed limits on local roads and perhaps raising the fines for distracted driving — is at the top of the transportation committee’s legislative agenda, Lemar said.
Pedestrian deaths have been rising steadily in recent years, but even by that measure, 2020 was exceptionally deadly. According to a preliminary count by the state Department of Transportation, 65 pedestrians died on Connecticut roads last year, an increase of six over 2019.
The pandemic has significantly reduced the number of cars on the roads, and there have been fewer accidents involving pedestrians overall, said Amy Watkins, program manager of Watch For Me CT, a joint effort by the DOT and the Connecticut Children’s Injury Prevention Center to address pedestrian safety.
In 2019, there were 1,568 crashes involving pedestrians; in 2020, the number of accidents involving pedestrians had slipped to 842. “The number of crashes is almost half of what it normally is, but we still have [roughly] the same number of deaths,” Watkins said.
Pedestrian safety advocates say the pandemic has brought out more walkers, runners and cyclists. But the factors that experts say are causing many of the pedestrian deaths, such as distracted driving, heavier motor vehicles and speeding, continue to exact a deadly toll.
“Are people speeding more because there are fewer cars on the road? Are people driving impaired because alcohol sales are up? It’s really tough to say,” Watkins said.
Last year, just days before the coronavirus crisis closed the Capitol, the transportation committee held a hearing on a package of proposals aimed to address the problem.
Like almost every bill in the 2020 session, it died when lawmakers adjourned.
The bill would have required motorists to grant the right-of-way to pedestrians who affirmatively indicate that they intend to cross at a crosswalk. Current law only requires drivers to yield to pedestrians once they enter the crosswalk.
It also would have given cities and towns the ability to lower speed limits on local roads, provided they hold a hearing and notify state traffic officials. Currently, the state must approve all requests to change speed limits on local roads.
The legislation also proposed raising the fines for those charged with using a cellphone while driving. And it would have prohibited “dooring,” the sudden opening of a car door in the path of an approaching bicyclist or pedestrian. Connecticut is one of just nine states that do not have a law barring this practice, which can cause devastating injuries.
Taken together, the proposals could make the roads safer for pedestrians, Lemar said, adding that none of them carries a significant fiscal note.
The DOT supports these measures as well as a new provision that seeks to clarify the law barring vehicles from parking within 25 feet of a marked crosswalk.
Lemar said he also supports two additional proposals. One would establish a pilot program for speed cameras in school and work zones and a second would raise the penalties for distracted driving to mirror the fines assessed to motorists who drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Connecticut’s effort to improve pedestrian safety is part of a larger global trend, Watkins said.
“It’s a huge change in thinking to take less of a focus on getting people in cars where they need to be as fast as possible,” Watkins said. “The community is about more than just people in cars.”
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