Lawmakers are considering several legislative fixes to help prevent wrong-way crashes on highways as part of a larger effort this year to cut down on the number of motorists and pedestrians being killed on Connecticut roadways.
The legislature’s Transportation Committee held a public hearing on Monday to solicit input on a bill — HB 6746 — that seeks to reduce the number of drivers who accidentally enter the wrong side of a highway.
The legislation has become personal for many lawmakers this year following the Jan. 5 death of Rep. Quentin “Q” Williams, D-Middletown, after an early morning head-on collision with another car traveling on the wrong side of Route 9 just outside Cromwell.
The fiery crash that claimed Williams’ life has called more attention to the serious issue of wrong-way drivers traveling at high speeds into oncoming traffic, as well as the overall increase in motor vehicle and pedestrian deaths on Connecticut’s roads.
Statistics presented by the Connecticut Department of Transportation on Monday reinforced the fact that Williams was not the only victim of a wrong-way accident over the past year, and one of many to die in a motor vehicle crash.
According to DOT statistics, 2022 was the deadliest year on Connecticut roadways in decades. Roughly 231 drivers and passengers died in motor vehicle accidents, and another 75 people who were walking or biking were also killed in collisions.
DOT Commissioner Garrett Eucalitto told lawmakers Connecticut must act to make the state’s roads safer.
“It is imperative for Connecticut to address the public health crisis on our roadways,” he said. “These deaths are preventable.”
Eucalitto testified that there were 13 wrong way crashes in 2022, claiming the lives of 23 people.
Even before Williams’ death this year, state transportation officials were raising concerns about the number of drivers entering highways in the wrong direction.
That’s why Gov. Ned Lamont and the other members of the State Bond Commission approved more than $20 million to purchase new technology that would alert drivers as they enter a highway off ramp and notify state police of that driver.
But Eucalitto told lawmakers Monday that more could be done to prevent such deadly accidents — and not all of them require new technology.
One of the biggest steps that lawmakers could take this year to cut down on wrong-way drivers and other deadly traffic accidents, Eucalitto said, is to reduce the legal blood alcohol level for drivers in Connecticut.
“To be frank, Connecticut has a drunk driving problem,” Eucalitto said. “We are one of the worst offending states in the nation.”
Currently, Connecticut law considers a driver legally intoxicated if they have a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or higher. But Eucalitto encouraged lawmakers to pass another bill — SB 1082 — that would lower that blood alcohol concentration to 0.05, a level that only one other state, Utah, has enforced.
Over the past decade, Eucalitto said, some states have seen the percentage of fatal drunk driving deaths decrease. Connecticut is not in that group, he said.
In 2020, Connecticut was the third worst state in the country when it came to the percentage of traffic fatalities linked to drunk drivers, Eucalitto said.
Eucalitto said impaired drivers are a significant factor in the wrong way crashes and the overall number of vehicular deaths in Connecticut.
According to DOT statistics, roughly 80% of the wrong-way collisions the state recorded on state highways last year included drivers who were impaired by either drugs or alcohol, and many of the head-on highway crashes occurred late at night or in the early hours of the morning.
The DOT recently analyzed 700 highway ramp locations in Connecticut, Eucalitto said, and identified 236 locations that are considered high-risk for wrong-way drivers.
That risk assessment was determined by whether the on and off ramps for a highway were on the same side of the roadway, and how close those highway ramps are to bars and other businesses serving alcohol.
Taking steps to reduce wrong-way driving is just one part of the overall strategy the DOT is asking state lawmakers to implement this year.
The Transportation Committee held a public hearing in January to consider legislation focused on reducing pedestrian fatalities on roadways.
That bill — HB 5917 — included a proposal enabling municipalities to install automatic traffic enforcement cameras in school zones, at intersections with a history of accidents, and in places with a high volume of pedestrian traffic.