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Pedestrian deaths on the rise in Connecticut

A pedestrian crosswalk on Jefferson Street by Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.
Ann Lopez
A pedestrian crosswalk on Jefferson Street by Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.

Getting around in Connecticut can be dangerous, especially for pedestrians. Last year 75 pedestrians were killed by vehicles in the state. That's according to the State Department of Transportation. Morning Edition host Tom Kuser speaks with Amy Watkins, the pedestrian safety coordinator for Watch for Me CT, about this trend and what's being done to stop it.

TOM KUSER: In April of 2022, we spoke with Amy Watkins, she's the pedestrian safety coordinator for Watch for Me CT. That's a program spearheaded by the Connecticut D. O. T. and Connecticut Children's Injury Prevention Center. At that time, there were concerns that 2022 would be one of the deadliest years for pedestrians. Here's an excerpt from that interview.

AMY WATKINS: What was very strange about COVID was it reduced the vehicle miles traveled because many people were staying at home. And what we all expected to happen would be a reduction in deaths, because fewer people were on the roads. But what we found instead and what has contributed to the trend in 2021 and 2022 is huge increases in fatalities. Because the people who are on the road are driving much faster, much more dangerously. So even though there's fewer cars on the road, the fatalities kept going up. So when we've got a lot of single-car crashes versus two-car fender benders. And that goes also for our pedestrians and our bicyclists. For some reason, it's just kind of getting a little crazy out there.

TK: And it turns out, those concerns were valid. Ms. Watkins joins us on Zoom. Welcome back to the program.

AW: Hi, thanks so much for having me and for covering this topic.

TK: And when we last spoke, you anticipated this increase in pedestrian deaths. Were these deaths all over the state? Or were they concentrated in any particular areas?

AW: Well, they are, unfortunately, all around the state they are at the same time, you'll see a higher count in some of our cities. So New Haven, Hartford, Waterbury, Bridgeport, Stamford, there's more people there, we have a lot of congestion, a lot of people walking a lot of traffic. So you have a higher number there. But we have deaths in small towns, medium towns, and cities all across the state. And it was a terrible year, as you say it was, unfortunately as predicted a deadly year for pedestrians last year.

TK: So what's going on what's causing this rise in pedestrian deaths?

AW: Nobody is really sure, exactly. There's some theories about that. So one is that COVID for some reason led to some more dangerous driving behaviors. When the roads were open, people felt that they could raise their speed, and really get going fast on highways, side roads, disregarding stop signs and stop lights. And that behavior has not gotten better since people have come back. So now people are back at work, we have more congestion, we have more people walking, but the driving behaviors are staying the same. The other piece is impairment. We have rising impairment rates here in our state, that may also be a major player in our runway crashes, which you might have heard about. And many people have noticed that that has gone sharply up as well. And that has a lot to do with impairment.

TK: I'm wondering too, about the demographics, I guess you might say is there any particular age group that is seeing a rise in this problem not so much from the pedestrian perspective, but from the driving the impairment perspective?

AW: Our highest offenders for repair impaired driving are young men, usually between to 20 and 35. The next rising group that is catching up to the younger men are the older men, so in their 40s and 50s. As far as deaths as pedestrian deaths, that's also more men than women typically are killed while walking, and for age groups, it's, it's we have people from two to 90, but the group most affected are people 55 and older. The burden is unfairly placed on that age group. And that's partly for a few reasons but, also it's just if you're older and you have a crash, it's a lot harder to survive that, as well as factors like the time they need to cross the street and things like that. So they're disproportionately affected.

TK: Well, we're halfway through 2023. What do the numbers look like for this year? So far?

AW: So far, we have 28 fatalities, pedestrian fatalities, and two bicyclist fatalities. It's on par with last year, it has not gotten better. And at this rate, we anticipate we will have another bad year.

TK: Is this time of year more common for pedestrian deaths, warmer people are out walking, or is it spread out over the year?
AW: The worst months are actually November, December, January when it starts to get darker earlier. And people are walking and driving at dusk, you know, at five o'clock. Those tend to be the worst months. But we have the death of about one a week no matter what month it is.

TK: What is Watch for Me CT doing to address this increase in pedestrian deaths?
AW: We're doing a few things. One is we serve on the Vision Zero Council, which is a DOT and government-formulated council to reduce traffic deaths to zero. We've been serving on that. And we're part of making recommendations to the governor and to the legislature which we're just passed this last month. So we're making some strides as far as improving infrastructure recommending things like cameras in school zones during school hours, and some other improvements that should help reduce death as far as policy and infrastructure go. We're also continuing to expand our education program to reach more drivers and more children as we're partnering with our Safe Routes to School program.

TK: Are there any examples of programs or projects around the country that have reduced pedestrian deaths?

AW: Yeah, so in Hoboken, New Jersey announced a Vision Zero program a few years ago, and they have reduced their traffic deaths to zero, they have done it. So slowing cars down and creating infrastructure that creates a situation where cars feel comfortable only going at a slower speed, reduces death and injury and makes an immediate effect on those numbers. So there are success stories across the country but Hoboken is the standout example.

TK: Wow! Zero in an entire year.

AW: Yes, zero.

TK: Well, Amy Watkins is the Pedestrian Safety Coordinator for Watch for Me CT, a program spearheaded by the Connecticut DOT. Thank you so much for updating us on the situation.

AW: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure.

Tom has been with WSHU since 1987, after spending 15 years at college and commercial radio and television stations. He became Program Director in 1999, and has been local host of NPR’s Morning Edition since 2000.
Ann is an editor and senior content producer with WSHU, including the founding producer of the weekly talk show, The Full Story.