Connecticut ranked sixth in the nation for the largest increase of traffic deaths during the first year of the pandemic, according to the National Safety Council.
There were 254 traffic-related deaths in the state in 2019. That number increased to 310 last year.
Eric Jackson, an associate professor of the Connecticut Transportation Safety Research Center at the University of Connecticut, said the lack of law enforcement on the roads is one reason behind the increase.
“There’s a lot less enforcement that’s out on the roadway and there’s a lot of different reasons for that,” Jackson said. “But you’re not seeing people pulled over and you’re not seeing the consequences of speeding that we have had in the past.”
Traffic stops made by Connecticut State Police have dropped more than half since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Hartford Courant reports enforcement is down in total stops, tickets issued and warnings given to drivers.
According to transit safety data, troopers stopped about 157,000 vehicles in 2019 compared to 76,000 in 2020. The number of traffic stops this year decreased to around 60,000 through October 2021.
New statistics also show that stops with tickets issued also dropped by more than 50% from 2019 to 2020.
For both state and local police, the combined number of stops statewide dropped from 512,000 in 2019 to about 188,000 in 2021.
Andrew Matthews, a retired sergeant who serves as executive director of the state troopers union, told the Courant that one of the reasons for lack of enforcement is low police morale that was caused by the new police accountability law that many officers opposed.
“Now, more than ever, there’s an anti-law enforcement movement at the Capitol with the legislators,” he said. “Our troopers saw it with the police accountability bill. When you don’t feel supported, you’re not eager to go out and self-initiate motor vehicle stops.”
Jackson said there’s a major increase with cars traveling at higher speeds.
“If you look at the Department of Transportation’s dashboards in terms of average speed, average speeds have increased significantly,” Jackson said. “The number of vehicles traveling over 80 miles per hour has increased by almost a factor of three out of five depending on where you’re looking at.”
“We have cars that go by our troopers on the highway at 100 miles per hour,” Matthews said. “They’re not stopping for us. They could not care less.”
Jackson said the pandemic has changed how people behave and that has led to an increase of recklessness and an increase in vehicle deaths.
“A lot of people during the lockdown got comfortable with there being no traffic on the roadways,” Jackson said. “People were much more comfortable traveling at speeds 80 mph. They didn’t have the congestion, they didn’t have other vehicles around them to kind of get a gauge for how fast they were actually traveling.”
He said the Connecticut Transportation Safety Research Center is looking at 2021 to be one of the worst years on record in Connecticut in terms of fatalities. With Omicron variant cases on the rise, more people are going to have an extra level of worry in their minds which could mean even more deadly crashes than the center originally predicted.
“I would expect that if Omicron does progress to the point where there’s more restrictions or potentially another lockdown to take place, we could end up in a spot where the number of fatalities continues to increase,” Jackson said. “As stress levels rise and as distractions rise and as more people are concentrated on other things, other than the task at hand which is paying 100% attention and focus on driving.”
Rising drug and alcohol use is also making the roads even more dangerous. In a survey, over 7% of adults said they were more likely to drive while impaired than they were before the pandemic. Researchers, who looked at accidents where drivers were either killed or seriously injured, found that drivers who tested positive for opioids almost doubled after the pandemic began. Drivers using marijuana and their phones also increased during the pandemic began.
Jackson recommends obeying traffic laws and speed limits, and leaving all distractions out of the car while driving. And if stuck in traffic with someone that is driving recklessly, he said don’t engage with them.
“If they’re trying to pass you, if they’re tailgating you, just pull off and let them go. Don’t engage, don’t get in a road rage situation. Let them go and basically make sure you stay away from those drivers that are doing those types of activities,” Jackson said. “If you want to make a call you can pull off of the road and call and alert state police or local police that there’s a driver that’s driving recklessly.”