With the retirement of Kevin Kane, Connecticut is hiring a new chief state’s attorney — the top prosecutor in the state — for the first time in 13 years. The state’s Criminal Justice Commission, who will select Kane’s replacement in the next few months, will be seeking someone with a passion for justice, a commitment to fairness and an understanding of the need for conscientious decarceration and criminal justice reform. Here’s another criterion the Criminal Justice Commission should be looking for: a seriousness about enforcing traffic laws to stem the epidemic of traffic violence and pedestrian fatalities on our streets, a crisis that state and local governments, and prosecutors, have been too slow to address.
The year 2019 was a deadly one for Connecticut pedestrians. In New Haven, there were five pedestrians killed in a single month (August) and for the year, the number of fatal collisions involving pedestrians — vehicular homicide — nearly equaled the number of gun homicides. The state’s roadways experienced an increase in pedestrian fatalities of an astonishing 53% over the previous year. The death toll included both poor, undocumented immigrants and prominent political figures (e.g. the chair of the Manchester Republican Party, John Deeb). Poorly designed streets, combined with increasing vehicle size and texting-while-driving, have turbo-charged a pedestrian fatality epidemic which does not distinguish between rich and poor, white or black or Latinx.
While studies have shown that the shift in vehicle sales from smaller passenger cars to three-ton SUVs, and the increasing prevalence of distracted driving are making roads more dangerous for pedestrians, these risk factors are compounded by inadequate enforcement of traffic laws.
Here are a few egregious recent examples where lax enforcement is creating a permissive climate for distracted driving and traffic violence: in 2017, student Melissa Tancredi was killed in New Haven when a reckless motorist drove onto the sidewalk where Tancredi was standing and struck her, nearly striking several other pedestrians who were also on the sidewalk, far outside the roadway. Although the incident occurred one block from Yale New Haven Hospital, the victim died only hours later. The motorist’s license was never suspended, even as she caused additional motor vehicle accidents while awaiting trial. Four charges against her were not prosecuted; she pled not guilty to one charge and served a few months’ suspended sentence.
In September 2019, a woman in Wilton was arrested for multiple, separate DUIs on the same day; the first DUI involved striking another vehicle. The motorist did not lose her license, retained her vehicle and was released on a promise to appear. The second DUI involved the same vehicle. By almost any standard this is a shocking failure of enforcement. Worse yet, the “vulnerable user” law (Public Act 14-31) which was passed by the Connecticut General Assembly in 2014 specifically to protect victims of traffic violence had never (until it was recently re-written) been used in a state prosecution. This bears repeating: the legislature passed the vulnerable user law with the express intent of giving prosecutors additional tools to go after reckless motorists and ensure traffic safety, yet in five years it had not been used — not even a single time — by Connecticut prosecutors, despite similar laws being used to great effect in other states.
What should be the role of the next Chief State’s Attorney in reversing the pedestrian fatality crisis? Prosecutors should be pursuing robust, targeted, intelligent enforcement — which does not necessarily mean expanding incarceration.
In Brooklyn, N.Y., a Driver’s Accountability Program established within the Kings County District Attorney’s office has focused attention and resources on reducing dangerous-driving recidivism without increasing incarceration or saddling low-income populations with punitive fines. District attorneys in Manhattan, Maricopa County (Arizona) and other jurisdictions have established special Vehicular Crimes Units specifically to investigate dangerous driving and stem traffic violence, in addition to collecting important data for transportation safety analysts and providing services to victims.
In Queens, N.Y. where addressing traffic safety concerns became a significant campaign issue in last year’s election for District Attorney, the new DA has pledged to appoint a dedicated liaison to work with the NY State Department of Motor Vehicles to ensure that dangerous drivers are taken off the road and prevent traffic violence from occurring in the first place.
The goal of our criminal justice system should be to ensure public safety and the rule of law, as these are essential for the quality of life in our communities. To attract new residents, and maintain the ones we already have, we need streets and neighborhoods where people are prioritized over motor vehicles, where our children feel safe playing outside, and our seniors feel comfortable crossing the street. This cannot be achieved by enforcement alone: it will require changes in driver education and awareness, and a greater commitment by state and local government to ‘complete streets’ and traffic calming infrastructure.
But police and prosecutors must do their part as well. Protecting our most vulnerable residents and stemming the epidemic of traffic violence must be a priority for the next Chief State’s Attorney.
Aaron Goode lives in New Haven.