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Connecticut Proposes Lowering Alcohol Limit to Prevent Traffic Deaths

During the first 22 days of this year, 17 people died in road crashes across the state. Legislators have proposed legislation to lower the blood alcohol level for arrest to .05, down from the current .08.

Connecticut State Sen. Tony Hwang speaks on the Senate floor
The car of Connecticut State Sen. Tony Hwang of Fairfield was hit from behind in a fender-bender due to a distracted driver. Hwang speaks on the Senate floor in February 2022.
(Mark Mirko/Hartford Courant/TNS)
As fatal accidents have increased sharply on Connecticut highways, state legislators are trying to make the roads safer with a comprehensive series of moves to reduce accidents and fatalities.

Among the key initiatives when the General Assembly reconvenes on Feb. 7 will be trying to make it easier for police to arrest motorists by reducing the threshold for drunken driving charges.

The measure is part of a broader plan to reduce a skyrocketing number of fatalities on Connecticut roads. Legislators were stunned at 366 deaths on the roads in 2022 — about one per day. The statistics show that 2022 was the worst year on Connecticut roads since 1989. While fatalities dipped to 323 last year, the numbers have headed back up this year.

During the first 22 days of January, 17 people died in accidents on Connecticut roads, according to the latest statistics released by the state Department of Transportation.

“That is an overwhelming number,” said Sen. Tony Hwang of Fairfield, the transportation committee’s ranking Senate Republican. “That is horrible.”

In an attempt to reduce crashes, the committee voted last year to lower the blood alcohol level for arrest to .05, down from the current .08. The measure passed by 21-15 with Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the bipartisan issue. The bill, however, never passed in the state House of Representatives and Senate before time expired.

If approved, Connecticut would follow Utah as the second state in the nation at .05. The national standard is .08 that states have enacted in order to avoid losing funding for federal highway construction. As a result, Connecticut is currently at the same level as nearby New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

In comprehensive fashion, Connecticut officials are also working on reducing wrong-way crashes on the highways and all aspects of transportation safety.

“These are all so very much intertwined and related — traffic, pedestrian, and cyclist safety,” said Sen. Christine Cohen, a Guilford Democrat who co-chairs the transportation committee. “We really looked in horror at the crash data last year — the fatality numbers, the wrong-way driving, the DUIs, the pedestrian strikes. These are numbers that no one wants to see.”

Across the country, the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration both support the .05 initiative to raise aware of the consequences of drinking and driving.

“We certainly have seen an increase in driving under the influence,” Cohen said in an interview. “We know [.05] works — not because more people are necessarily getting caught. That’s really not the idea here at all. It works because people think twice before getting behind the wheel with a .05 BAC limit in place. We’re not looking for a gotcha or to give police more work.”

Drivers, she said, need to keep perspective.

“Go out and enjoy our amazing restaurant and entertainment scene, and then call a rideshare, use your designated driver or take our public transportation network,” Cohen said. “But don’t get behind the wheel of a car.”

Other states, including New York, California, Michigan, Hawaii, and Washington, have explored the idea of reducing the level but have not yet approved the idea. More than 100 countries worldwide have adopted that standard.

“Most of Europe is .05 and parts of Canada, Africa, Asia,” Cohen said. “This is not a new concept. We’re not pulling this out of the blue. It is pretty common in the rest of the world.”

In addition to alcohol, Republicans say the recent decriminalization of marijuana has made the situation worse. Drivers smoking pot can become impaired, and police have complained repeatedly that they do not have a simple test for marijuana in the way they can measure blood levels for alcohol.

Hwang said that legislators were too focused on generating taxes when they voted to decriminalize marijuana and should have looked more closely at the health aspects.

“It shouldn’t be all about the money,” Hwang said. “It should look at consequences and societal impact.”

Statistics


Besides .05, the committee is working on overall traffic safety, including the deaths of pedestrians and a rash of wrong-way crashes on the highways.

In 2022, the 366 overall deaths were the highest in 33 years. Another peak in 2022 was 73 pedestrian fatalities, compared to 55 pedestrians in 2019 and 2021 and 51 last year.

Motorcycle deaths have claimed 68, 66, and 62 lives over the past three years, up sharply from 49 in 2019.

Wrong-way crashes also peaked in 2022 with 13 accidents that led to 23 fatalities, the highest total by far in recent years. Last year, the total dropped back down to 7 fatalities — still above the levels of four each in 2020 and 2021.

During the first two weeks this year, there was one wrong-way crash with one fatality in Branford, which involved a 48-year-old Arizona woman who had been driving on Interstate 95 when her Jeep struck a tractor-trailer.

State officials sometimes cannot explain the reasons for the spike in 2022, but some point to the post-pandemic period when large volumes of traffic finally reappeared after the coronavirus subsided.

“In 2020 and 2021, that’s when the speeds started picking up on the roadways,” said Josh Morgan, the chief spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. “That’s when a lot of dangerous behaviors were being established because there was a lot fewer vehicles out on the road. But all of that behavior has continued.”

In similar fashion, state DOT trucks and equipment in work zones are hit by cars on a regular basis, reaching 151 times last year.

“Speeding and distractions are really prominent on our roadways,” Morgan said. “The speeds are too fast. People are driving out of control. People are not paying attention. … Some people are still not wearing seat belts 100 percent of the time, and people are driving drunk and taking that game of chance that ‘I’ll get home OK. I’ll be fine.’ Sometimes it’s true, and tragically, sometimes it’s not.”

Wrong-Way Crashes


Lawmakers were already working on the problem of wrong-way crashes, but they vowed to redouble their efforts following the death last year of state Rep. Quentin “Q” Williams. The Middletown Democrat was killed in early January 2023 when his car was hit by a wrong-way driver shortly after Williams had left the governor’s inaugural ball in Hartford.

The other driver, Kimede Katie Mustafaj, a 27-year-old woman from Manchester who died in the accident, had been traveling the wrong way on Route 9 and caused the crash, police said. Mustafaj’s intoxication was named in a police report as a contributing factor. “Kimede Mustafaj was operating under the influence of alcohol and was unable to safely operate a motor vehicle,” the report says.

Toxicology tests showed that both drivers were legally drunk at the time of the crash as Williams’s blood alcohol concentration was measured at 0.159 percent, and the wrong-way driver was measured at 0.137 percent. Both drivers also had traces of marijuana in their blood, and Williams was traveling at 85 miles per hour at the time of the crash, officials said.

In May 2023, legislators voted for multiple improvements to stop wrong-way drivers after wrong-way fatalities on Connecticut highways jumped nearly six-fold.

After a brief debate, the state House of Representatives voted 151-0 to install wrong-way detection systems at 120 highway exit ramps that were cited by state transportation officials who have studied 700 ramps.

The answer, lawmakers said, is a multifaceted plan for a combination of warning systems, signs, electronic messages, flashing lights, and rumble strips to deter drivers from mistakenly getting on an exit.

The consumption of alcohol in many cases is so high, lawmakers said, that many drivers do not even realize that they are headed in the opposite direction.

As wrong-way driving has become a problem, state transportation officials declared that 236 spots statewide are “high risk” for wrong-way drivers, depending on factors such as previous accidents at the site, the number of bars within a half-mile of the ramp, and whether there is poor lighting in the area. Under a pilot program in 2022, some locations were outfitted with 360-degree cameras to capture drivers and flash “wrong way” signs to deter motorists.

The state transportation commissioner testified last year in favor of the .05 alcohol limit, a view that Gov. Ned Lamont favors.

“To be frank, Connecticut has a drunk driving problem,” said commissioner Garrett Eucalitto. “We’re one of the worst-offending states in the nation… This is unacceptable. What we’ve been doing is no longer working, and it’s time for us to do everything in our power to change the behavior of Connecticut’s drivers.”

State Senator Accident


On a personal note, Hwang told a story about how accidents can still happen at a time when cars are safer than ever, with highly sophisticated air bags, rear-view cameras, and Bluetooth wireless technology.

Hwang was traveling less than 10 miles from his home on a main street about six weeks ago when his car was suddenly rear-ended at a traffic light.

“It was a young mother with three young children in the back seat,” Hwang said, adding that no one was injured. “Thankfully, they were all in car seats. She was just so upset. What happened was she had three kids screaming and yelling in the back. She explained that she turned her head to tell the kids to behave, and the light had changed, and she had not seen it, and she rear-ended me. She was so apologetic. I said, ‘Look, as long as everybody is OK.’ ”

The lesson was that cars are vastly safer than in the past, but still cannot prevent all accidents.

“Air bags, sensor systems, automatic braking, automatic driving — they create a sense of security that we can do 10 different things while we’re driving,” Hwang said. “The car is virtually a technological marvel, dedicated to safety. It’s wonderful. But guess what? It does not replace human operation. It does not replace the unexpected. … We’re building safer, more interactive and sensor-related cars, and you would think you would be safer. But unfortunately, you still have human error and human operation.”


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