The unblinking eye of cameras will begin enforcing the speed limits at highway work zones in Connecticut in a tightly constrained pilot program that begins on April 10, the day after Easter.
To Carl Chisem, the experiment is long overdue. As the president of Connecticut Employees Union Independent, Chisem represents 3,600 state employees, including 1,500 at the Department of Transportation.
“The data does not lie,” Chisem said Wednesday. “In the last four years, there have been 3,674 crashes, resulting in 13 fatalities and 32 serious injuries in work zones alone.”
A simple memorial in the DOT lobby lists names of the 13 and 24 other workers killed in work zones. Where someone might ordinarily leave flowers, there are orange traffic cones marked CT DOT and wrapped in black ribbon.
Gov. Ned Lamont joined Chisem, DOT workers and others in a parking lot near the DOT headquarters in Newington to publicize the start of a pilot program that transportation officials hope will become a permanent check on reckless drivers.
“It’s gotten pretty dodgy since COVID,” Lamont said. “A lot of people driving like a bat out of hell. It’s these folks who are at risk.”
They stood by a white SUV equipped with cameras linked to automated systems that will issue tickets. Cars sped by on the Berlin Turnpike, occasionally drowning out the speakers.
“What if this press conference was scheduled for behind a set of cones on I-95 at midnight — or even better, after the bars get out?” asked Donald J. Shubert, the president of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association.
The highway construction season is a three-season affair, with overnight shifts common.
“Construction workers are going to be out there eight to 10 hours a night, spring, summer and fall, focusing on their fellow employees, the trucks, the heavy equipment and the quality of their work with their backs towards the traffic,” Shubert said. “Think about that. How would you feel?”
On the night of Nov. 16, 1995, David Ferraro was a construction inspector in a closed southbound lane on I-95 in Greenwich, about 1,000 feet from the New York border, when a motorist sent safety cones flying, struck a truck and sped away.
“It was at the beginning of the night at the point where all workers were preparing to start paving,” Ferraro said.
He felt the impact of the cones, not realizing he had been hit by the car until a trooper pointed to his torn and bloodied jeans. Troopers caught the driver in New York. He was drunk.
Ferraro said things only have gotten worse.
“Over my years on the job, I’ve seen it all,” he said. “People not just going five or 10 miles an hour over the speed limit, they’re going 30, 40 or plus miles an hour over the speed. So what can we do to slow people down? We do this by joining other states around the country and adding automated speed control devices and cameras to active construction projects.”
The General Assembly has placed tight limits on the DOT: Only three camera-enforcement vehicles can be used at one time, each limited to a work site posted with signage warning motorists of automated speed enforcement.
The cameras are unblinking, but they are programmed for leniency: They cannot issue a ticket unless someone is 15 miles per hour over the limit.
“This is not that complicated. Don’t drink and drive. Don’t tweet and drive. Stop speeding,” Lamont said. “Look at the wrong-way deaths. We see what’s happening to pedestrians getting hit. And look at the folks behind me.”
Behind him were DOT employees and private-sector construction workers.
“These guys are going to be really busy for the next 10 years. We’re upgrading our roads and bridges in a way that the state hasn’t seen since Dwight Eisenhower,” Lamont said.
Eisenhower was the president who pushed for passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 and the creation of an interstate highway system not deemed to be finished until 1992.
Garrett Eucalitto, the DOT commissioner, said the agency will compare speeds at work sites before and after the cameras are deployed to measure their effectiveness. He must report results to the legislature at year’s end.
The DOT currently is seeking authorization to use the cameras on local roads.
“We’ve seen it in New York City. We’ve seen it in Philadelphia,” Eucalitto said. “We don’t want to put them everywhere. But it’s a good tool to have to help save lives and reduce crashes.”
Speed traps seemed to have disappeared during COVID.
Col. Stavros Mellekas said staffing has limited their deployment, but they are out there. And in state police parlance, speed traps do not exist.
“We don’t call them speed traps,” he said. “We do motor vehicle enforcement.”