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Connecticut’s roads are deadlier than ever. Figuring out why is complicated

Jason DeCrow

On March 23, 2020, Connecticut came to a standstill.

In an effort to control the devastating spread of COVID-19, Gov. Ned Lamont instructed all non-essential businesses to stop in-person operations and asked residents to “Stay Safe, Stay at Home.”

As state after state issued lockdown orders, roads across the country emptied. Major highways were eerily deserted, and traffic fell to new lows.

But something else started to happen, too. Even though there were fewer cars on the road, more people were dying in car crashes.

“We had the lockdown period where [the number of] people driving in our state plummeted, but we saw more people die on our roadways in 2020 than 2019, which made no sense,” said Garrett Eucalitto, the deputy commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Transportation.

In 2020, 301 people died in car crashes in Connecticut, according to data tracked by the DOT, a 21% increase over the previous year. At the time, it was the most traffic fatalities the state had experienced in a single year since 2016. The trend stunned public health and traffic safety experts. Then, in 2021, the number of people that died in accidents continued to increase, with the latest estimate totaling 323 deaths.

“Those are [each] an individual who is not going home that night. That’s a life, that’s an entire family and community disrupted,” said Eucalitto.

This isn’t just happening in Connecticut. States all over the country are seeing the same pattern: Traffic fatalities increased in the wake of pandemic lockdowns, even though fewer cars were on the road.

The issue has caught the attention of the federal government. Just this week, the DOT’s Federal Highway Administration announced an increase in funding focused on improving roadway safety, particularly for pedestrians and bikers.

But why the pandemic coincided with an increase in traffic deaths is still a mystery.

That’s partly because determining the underlying cause of a crash is an imperfect science. Did it happen because, for example, the driver of the first car was using their cell phone or because the driver of the second car was speeding?

When an accident occurs, police officers try to recreate the crash and identify the major factors at play, which they then include in a report.

Teams at the state Department of Transportation and UConn’s Connecticut Transportation Safety Research Centercross-reference data from the police departments with data from death certificates and toxicology reports to get an even fuller picture of the accident.

Experts are still pulling together all these pieces for 2021 crashes, so they don’t completely understand the underlying causes for the increase in fatal crashes since the start of the pandemic.

“We don’t have a really perfect picture as to what’s causing it,” said Eucalitto. “We have some beliefs and assumptions.”

Reckless driving

One thing is for sure: People are driving faster.

“During the lockdown, as traffic dropped, people had more opportunities to go faster because there weren’t more cars on the roadway. And what we’re also seeing is that those speeds haven’t decreased now that traffic has picked back up,” said Eric Jackson, director of the Connecticut Transportation Safety Research Center, which maintains the state’s crash data repository.

"We can measure speed on the roadways, and we know there is an increase and a shift in the way people drive," he said. And the faster cars are going, the more likely it is that the crash will be fatal.

Impaired driving is also playing an increased role in fatal accidents. According to data from the Connecticut Crash Data Repository, in 2020, 80 drivers killed in traffic accidents were under the influence of either drugs, alcohol or medication. That’s more than a 33% increase over 2019 and nearly double the number of DUI-involved driver fatalities in 2015. This includes only cases in which the impaired driver was killed and does not account for cases in which an impaired driver causes the death of someone else.

The data for 2021 is still being processed, but Jackson expects it will show more DUI-involved crash deaths.

“I think if we start to dig deeper into impaired driving stats for 2021, we will see an increase in fatalities where drugs, alcohol, and the combination will be higher than in years past. Connecticut was already a leader in the nation for impaired fatals,” he said.

How the pandemic affected drivers

Jackson believes that there is also a mental health response to the pandemic at play on roadways.

“The other part that I think is much harder to prove is that people are stressed out a lot more, they have a lot more that they have to deal with mentally,” he said. “I think that carries over into the road.”

Nick Maltby, a Farmington-based psychologist, said the increase in reckless driving could be partially explained by an increased threshold for risk as a result of the pandemic.

“When you’re faced with something that can bring death, things that appeared risky before don’t seem that risky anymore,” Maltby said.

One area where Maltby has seen this play out is among soldiers returning home from war.

“Your sense of relative risk changes because you’re aware that bad things can happen to you at any moment. One thing that teaches you is to live very ‘present-focused,’” said Maltby.

That focus on the present can lead some people to make risky decisions in the moment, disregarding the impact those decisions may have in the future.

“It takes [people who return from some military service] a long time to plan successfully for the future again.”

Studies have found that soldiers exposed to combat are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, including alcohol abuse and reckless driving, upon their return home than they were pre-deployment.

And soldiers aren't the only ones who respond this way to traumatic, life-threatening experiences.

A 2014 study found that children who experience cumulative trauma are more likely to exhibit high risk behaviors in adolescence, including skipping school, running away from home and self-injury. Several studies have also shown increases in intergroup violence, alcohol and substance abuse, and suicidal behaviors among populations who survive natural disasters.

The pandemic might have had a similar effect on individuals. For two years, people have dealt with the threat of a deadly virus that has changed life dramatically.

“It’s so overarching that we all, whether you took it seriously or didn’t take it as seriously, it was so prevalent in society that it made you present-focused,” said Maltby.

For many of us, the pandemic may have triggered a focus on the present that has increased our risk threshold more broadly — reckless driving isn’t the only risky behavior on the rise in the wake of COVID.

In 2020, the U.S. experienced a 30% surge in the murder rate, the sharpest increase in a century. Between April 2020 and April 2021, the number of Americans who died of a drug overdose — more than 100,000 people — increased by 29%. Firearm sales reached record highs in 2020, and, though sales declined slightly in 2021, they were still much higher than pre-pandemic levels. Even cigarette sales increased in 2020 — the first annual increase in sales in two decades.

Less enforcement

Police are also giving out far fewer tickets.

Like the trend in traffic fatalities, this pattern began at the start of the pandemic, and the numbers of tickets issued has dropped. The overall number of infractions issued, as measured by the Racial Profiling Prohibition Project, dropped 60% from 2019 to 2020. Similarly, according to the state Judicial Department, tickets that led to convictions dropped more than 60% between 2019 and 2020. The same severe drop was evident at both the state police and local departments.

Why are police giving out fewer tickets?

Part of it has to do with staffing. The state police, as well as local departments, have reported severe staffing shortages. Fewer officers means less enforcement.

Avon Police Chief James Rio said the department was lucky to hire four officers during the pandemic to bring them to full staff, but he said he knows other municipalities, like the state police, haven’t been so lucky.

“If a smaller department loses one or two officers, that’s significant, and that impacts what you can do,” Rio said.

The state police have about 970 sworn members, an improvement over a few years ago when the number dipped below 900, but nowhere near staffing levels from 10 years or so ago when there were nearly 1,300 sworn members.

Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who serves as the co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Public Safety Committee, said that even though the state has approved a number of classes of new troopers recently, the department is still catching up.

“So my sense is that part of the problem with state police staffing is that even though we've had a lot of classes put in over the last four years, they're not keeping up with the number of retirements that they've had. They're maybe going up a few but not enough to make a significant difference,” Osten said.

“I think we'll probably have to have another two, maybe three, years of classes just to get where we need to be.”

The way police interact with the public has also changed in the last two years.

Rep. Greg Howard, a Republican from Stonington who has been a police officer in the town for 20 years, said he has no doubt there is a correlation between the decrease in tickets being issued and the number of police officers on the roads enforcing traffic laws.

But, Howard said, there are other factors at play that have caused officers to interact with the public less than they did before. He believes it is a combination of the pandemic, particularly at the beginning, the aftermath of the George Floyd case, and the police accountability bill that was passed in this state after Floyd’s murder.

“In the spring of 2020, I think it was mostly we were not going to stop cars unless we really had to, because we just didn’t know what we were dealing with at that point with the virus,” Howard said.

Rio also said that, pre-pandemic, the Avon police department was focusing on traffic stops and enforcement because that’s what residents were complaining about. But, once the pandemic hit, officers were told not to stop people unnecessarily.

By the time the first wave of the pandemic subsided and people started driving more, Floyd was murdered, setting off protests against the police all over the country and cries to defund police departments.

“When it came time for officers to go back to their old routines, there was no incentive, because the rhetoric that swept the nation hurt morale,” Howard said.

Howard said now there’s “no fear of COVID anymore, but morale is still low” because the police accountability bill has officers concerned about how these new laws will be interpreted or applied.

“Nobody wanted to be the test case, so officers went out, did their calls or what they were ordered to do and no more, because they didn’t want to end up in the newspaper or in front of internal affairs because a complaint had been filed against them,” he said.

What’s the solution?

To address staffing, Osten has asked state officials to check whether the federal government has reinstated two grant programs that could help get more officers on the road — the rural roads grant program and a DUI program — that were stopped by the government in the past four or five years.

“It was very helpful when I was first elected to have these kinds of grants, because it allows us to get coverage on times of the day and weekend times when you normally might not have anybody there to do additional traffic enforcement,” Osten said.

Osten envisions the grants going to small-town police departments or to state police resident troopers responsible for enforcement in smaller towns.

“Fatalities aren’t just on the major highways, right?” Osten said, citing Route 32 that runs through Franklin and other small towns in eastern Connecticut as an example.

“We've had a number of fatal accidents on Route 32 in the area of Franklin, Lebanon, South Windham and up into Willimantic. That’s one of the worst areas. They have had accident after accident. So that is something that I think that we have to pay attention to because it's not just happening on I-95 or I-91.”

To reduce speed, Eucalitto said, the DOT is exploring engineering changes, such as rotaries, along with road improvements -- including lighting, crosswalks, and curbs -- which would also improve the roadway conditions for non-vehicle users. There’s also a pilot program in place to understand whether speed cameras will help control speeding in work zones.

Eucalitto explained that the ultimate goal is zero fatalities on the state’s roadways.

To that end, last year, the DOT launched the Vision Zero Council, the first statewide vision zero council in the country. It includes representatives from the departments of Motor Vehicles, Public Health, Criminal Justice, Education, the State Police, and the Office of Early Childhood. Over the next year, the Council will submit a proposal to the legislature outlining how to reduce the number of people dying on Connecticut’s roadways.