With Spike in Traffic Fatalities, Conn. State Police Set to Return to Highways

March 4, 2024
One of the biggest obstacles to traffic enforcement for the Connecticut State Police has been the staffing shortage the agency has faced. "We need more troopers. We need more police," said Gov. Ned Lamont.

Drivers on Connecticut highways often remark they have rarely seen a state trooper in recent years as fellow drivers speed past them.

But that is going to change.

Those years have shown higher speeds, decreased enforcement, and more fatalities as traffic stops plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic and Connecticut broke a record in 2022 with the most traffic fatalities in the past 33 years.

Stung by the statistics, Gov. Ned Lamont and top state police brass announced changes last week by launching stepped-up enforcement on stretches of highways where the most accidents have occurred. After already targeting the Merritt Parkway recently, troopers will be out in force on Interstate 91 between New Haven and Hartford and Interstate 95 between Bridgeport and New Haven.

In a multifaceted approach, state police said they are also reaching out to local police chiefs across the state for increased enforcement because drunk drivers travel across the local streets as they are headed to the highways.

“We want this to be a cascading effort,” state police commissioner Ronnell A. Higgins told reporters of the joint effort. “We’re also have already begun having conversations with local police chiefs. We want them to step up their efforts proximate to our highways and those off-ramps where people are going the wrong way. So we pledge to create a unity of effort. We want our work to cascade throughout the cities. We know that if we’re seeing this impaired driving on the highways that we have to be seeing this impaired driving in the cities, as well. This is going to be a full-court press.”

Too few officers

One of the biggest issues in the enforcement is that the state police have about 300 fewer troopers than in the past and a specialized traffic unit with 15 members when compared to 62 in 2018.

When asked by The Courant if the state has enough troopers to accomplish the goals of increased enforcement, Lamont responded, “No, I think we need more troopers. I’m pleased that we now have more troopers today than when I came into office — a few more, to be blunt. We have another class [of trainees] coming in. We need more troopers. We need more police.”

Lamont added, “This is true around the country. The new governor of Louisiana called an emergency because they’re so understaffed in terms of policing down there. We’re doing better here, but we’ve got to do better still.”

The uniformed force in the state police is 931, down sharply from a former state minimum of 1,248 troopers. The legislature placed the 1,248 total into state law, but the mandate was stripped out by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration in a budget-implementation bill.

Lt. Col. Daniel Loughman, the interim commanding officer, described an all-hands-on-deck atmosphere to addressing the crashes and fatalities.

“We’re trying to get the entire state police patrol in on this,” Loughman said. “We’re working to increase our visibility out there and enforcement, conducting stops and deterring this driving behavior.”

Impact of marijuana 

While the impact of drunken driving has been well documented for years, state legislators are questioning the influence of the recent decriminalization of marijuana. 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.

Marijuana has been involved in some fatal accidents, and both drivers had traces of marijuana in their blood in the wrong-way crash last year that killed state Rep. Quentin “Q” Williams of Middletown after he left the governor’s inaugural ball in Hartford.

“To combat the wrong-way and impaired driving epidemic in Connecticut, our approach must be rooted in law enforcement, education, and behavioral change,” said Rep. Kathleen Kennedy, the ranking House Republican on the transportation committee. “I look forward to supporting upcoming proposals that retain and recruit more officers, bring families and police into a conversation on safety with new drivers, and address the rise in marijuana use while driving — particularly, restoring the ability of a law enforcement officer to use the odor of cannabis to conduct an investigatory motor vehicle stop.”

State Rep. Greg Howard, who has also worked as a police officer in Stonington for more than 20 years, hailed the renewed effort at traffic enforcement — saying that the police presence and vehicle stops lead directly to a reduction in crashes and fatalities. At the same time, he said the legislature also needs to change the law to help police in their enforcement efforts.

Why the lack of enforcement?

“One cannot simply discount that the governor himself signed a law in 2021 that specifically prohibited police officers from stopping operators observed by police officers to be smoking marijuana while driving,” Howard said. “Police officers around Connecticut have certainly not ignored continued legislation proposed, passed and/or signed by the governor that disparages their profession and by extension limits the ranks of officers. Police officers around Connecticut quietly watched while over 80 troopers were dragged through the mud based on data discrepancies when they’ve done nothing wrong as proven by an independent investigation.”

Howard and others have cited low morale among police officers in recent years as a key reason for the lack of enforcement. Republicans say police have been handcuffed because they have been largely blocked from making “consent” searches during motor vehicle stops, and they have sometimes backed off high-speed chases because they are concerned about their personal liability.

“Right now, there is a bill in the judiciary committee that will further limit traffic stops in the state, when we know that the presence of police stops leads to slower speeds,” Howard said. “It is high time that the majority party in Hartford, and the governor’s office finally admit that their consistent disparagement of law enforcement has had deadly effects on our roads. Much like the governor suggests that folks need to adjust their driving habits, it’s time that he and his party in Hartford adjust course, support our law enforcement, and acknowledge that where there is no enforcement, there is no compliance, and that is killing Connecticut residents every day.”

But Democrats have countered that traffic stops have been down because the state has far fewer troopers than in the past — rather than directly due to any problems with morale. They noted that traffic accidents and fatalities had increased since the pandemic nationally — just as in Connecticut. While Republicans complained that the smell of marijuana alone could not be used for reasonable suspicion to stop a motorist, Democrats countered that drivers could have the smell of marijuana on themselves because they had been at a friend’s house and not because they had been smoking marijuana in a car.

“The governor has full faith and confidence in our law enforcement community and their ability to keep our state safe,” said Julia Bergman, Lamont’s chief spokeswoman. “He is appreciative of the sacrifices they make in the name of public protection. We disagree with Rep. Howard’s suggestion that they are doing otherwise.”

Statistics

One of the possible changes in battling drunken driving is lowering the blood alcohol level for arrest from the current .08, to .05. The measure is pending. In recent years, the transportation committee has been working on overall traffic safety, including the deaths of pedestrians and a rash of wrong-way crashes on the highways.

In 2022, the 366 overall deaths were the highest in 33 years. Another peak in 2022 was 73 pedestrian fatalities, compared to 55 pedestrians in 2019 and 2021 and 51 last year.

Motorcycle deaths have claimed 68, 66, and 62 lives over the past three years, up sharply from 49 in 2019.

Wrong-way crashes also peaked in 2022 with 13 accidents that led to 23 fatalities, the highest total by far in recent years. Last year, the total dropped back down to 7 fatalities — still above the levels of four each in 2020 and 2021.

During the first two weeks this year, there was one wrong-way crash with one fatality in Branford, which involved a 48-year-old Arizona woman who had been driving on Interstate 95 when her Jeep struck a tractor-trailer. The wrong-way crash in West Haven claimed four lives in one of the deadliest crashes in recent years.

State officials sometimes cannot explain the reasons for the spike in 2022, but some point to the post-pandemic period when large volumes of traffic finally reappeared after the coronavirus subsided but high speeds continued.

Learner’s permit

In a new study, Connecticut ranked among the top 10 most dangerous states in the number of fatal crashes involving a young driver with a learner’s permit.

Nationally, Connecticut ranked ninth in a study by a personal injury law firm in Georgia of state-by-state statistics from national highway data from 2017 to 2021. Kentucky ranked as the most dangerous state with 2.2% of all fatal crashes having involved a driver with a learner’s permit. That was followed by Massachusetts at 1.78%.

The study, released last week, stated that Connecticut had 1,983 fatal crashes during the four-year period. Of those, drivers with a learner’s permit were involved in 24 crashes or 1.21%. Connecticut’s numbers were better, but similar, to Vermont at 1.4% and New York at 1.29%, but far more dangerous than West Virginia, where the study said there were no fatal accidents among learner’s permit drivers during the four-year period.

Wrong-way crashes

Lawmakers were already working on the problem of wrong-way crashes, but they vowed to redouble their efforts following the death last year of state Rep. Quentin “Q” Williams. The Middletown Democrat was killed in early January 2023 when his car was hit by a wrong-way driver shortly after Williams had left the governor’s inaugural ball in Hartford.

The other driver, Kimede Katie Mustafaj, a 27-year-old woman from Manchester who died in the accident, had been traveling the wrong way on Route 9 and caused the crash, police said. Mustafaj’s intoxication was named in a police report as a contributing factor. “Kimede Mustafaj was operating under the influence of alcohol and was unable to safely operate a motor vehicle,” the report says.

In May 2023, legislators voted for multiple improvements to stop wrong-way drivers after wrong-way fatalities on Connecticut highways jumped nearly six-fold. The state House of Representatives voted 151-0 to install wrong-way detection systems at 120 highway exit ramps that were cited by state transportation officials who have studied 700 ramps.

The answer, lawmakers said, is a multifaceted plan for a combination of warning systems, signs, electronic messages, flashing lights, and rumble strips to deter drivers from mistakenly getting on an exit.

As wrong-way driving has become a problem, state transportation officials declared that 236 spots statewide are “high risk” for wrong-way drivers, depending on factors such as previous accidents at the site, the number of bars within a half-mile of the ramp, and whether there is poor lighting in the area. Under a pilot program in 2022, some locations were outfitted with 360-degree cameras to capture drivers and flash “wrong way” signs to deter motorists.

But the consumption of alcohol in many cases is so high, lawmakers said, that many drivers do not even realize that they are headed in the opposite direction.

The state transportation commissioner testified last year in favor of the .05 alcohol limit, a view that Lamont favors.

“To be frank, Connecticut has a drunk driving problem,” commissioner Garrett Eucalitto testified. “We’re one of the worst-offending states in the nation… This is unacceptable. What we’ve been doing is no longer working, and it’s time for us to do everything in our power to change the behavior of Connecticut’s drivers.”

The .05 limit is pending and is subject to approval by the state House of Representatives and Senate before the legislative session ends on May 8.

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