Top Connecticut lawmakers search for solutions with state police commissioner as traffic fatalities reach highest level in state history

·6 min read

With traffic fatalities reaching a record high, top legislators on Thursday pledged to work with the state police commissioner during the upcoming legislative session to make state highways safer.

A major concern among state officials is that traffic deaths increased in 2021 to 326, which is the highest total since the state started keeping comprehensive records on an annual basis in 1994. That compares to 301 deaths in 2020 and 250 in 2019.

At a time of low morale and below-normal staffing, traffic enforcement by the state police dropped by more than half during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite vehicles driving faster, enforcement fell sharply in several major categories, including total stops, tickets issued, and warnings given to drivers.

“People have been driving too fast over the last couple of years with COVID because we had less people on the roads,’' said Sen. Cathy Osten, a Sprague Democrat who co-chairs the public safety and appropriations committees. “Now, they’re still driving as fast, even though we have more people on the roads.’'

Both the state police brass and the troopers’ union have cited low staffing as a reason for fewer patrols on the highways and fewer traffic stops. The total of troopers peaked at 1,283 under Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell about 15 years ago, and the number has dropped below 900 at times due to retirements before going back up to about 970. Currently, 65 troopers are being trained at the police academy and expect to graduate in the spring.

“We know that we need more troopers,’' Osten said in an interview. “That’s why we’ve been paying for these classes [of new troopers] over the last four years.’'

Osten said Thursday’s meeting was a regular, pre-session meeting with state police commissioner James C. Rovella to determine how the legislature can help during the upcoming session that starts on February 9. State police declined to comment after the meeting.

Traffic cameras under discussion

Traffic stops by state troopers peaked most recently in 2014 with nearly 235,000 stops, according to statistics from the Institute of Municipal and Regional Policy at UConn in Hartford. That total fell to 157,007 in 2019 and then 75,988 in 2020 — the year that the ongoing pandemic started. The total increased to nearly 112,000 for the first 11 months of 2021 as the state was recovering from the pandemic and beginning to return to normal.

Lawmakers noted the sharp uptick in traffic enforcement at the end of 2021 after reaching the bottom last year due to the pandemic.

“We know COVID had a lot to do with that because there was a directive for police to engage less to protect themselves and the public from communicating the disease,’' said Rep. Maria Horn, a Litchfield County Democrat who co-chairs the committee. “I’m glad to see that the stops are going back up significantly from 2020.’'

Saying that enforcement is a complicated issue, Horn said that one of the answers might be speed cameras that are expected later this year on a trial basis in work zones on highways in Connecticut. But Horn, a former federal prosecutor in New York, added that more conversation is needed because some have concerns about “privacy and government overreach.’'

Of the cameras, Horn added, “They’re very fair. You don’t get out of it because you know somebody. Everybody gets the same ticket. To make it work, in terms of deterrence, it can’t just be one or two cameras in remote places. People need to understand that they may not see a police car, but they may see a camera. I think you need that to get to deterrence, and we’re far from that.’'

For years, state lawmakers have rejected the concept of “red light’' cameras that have been installed on Long Island and other places where drivers receive a ticket for running a red light. The highway cameras are slightly different because they do not involve traffic intersections. Some lawmakers and advocates have objected to the concept of “Big Brother’' as government is watching the movements of citizens.

Retirements coming

Citing low morale, state Rep. Greg Howard said that some police officers had fallen into “a slump’' that led to decreased traffic enforcement at a time of high criticism of the police following the death of George Floyd while handcuffed in police custody in Minneapolis. Many officers, he said, were also concerned about the police accountability bill that was passed by the Connecticut legislature on a mostly party-line basis with Democrats in favor and Republicans and police unions against.

“They don’t have much motivation because of the [anti-police] rhetoric and the police bill,’' said Howard, a Stonington Republican. “It is the police bill, but it’s not just the police bill.’'

Howard said it is indisputable the police enforcement can lead to fewer deaths on the highways.

“The more policing you have on the roads, the less traffic violations you’re going to have,’' said Howard, a Stonington police officer for the past 20 years. “People who deny that — I don’t know what to say to them. If there’s more cops out doing traffic enforcement, we know fatalities go down. That’s a known.’'

The staffing issues will be exacerbated because an estimated 276 troopers will be eligible to retire by July 1, 2022 — when changes in the cost-of-living adjustments in state pensions could prompt a large number of retirements. Attrition at the younger levels is an issue, too. State police made 127 offers last year to candidates, leading to 120 starting in the academy, officials said. But only 83 graduated because many dropped out due to the rigorous training process.

Besides the number of total stops, the latest statistics show that stops with tickets issued also dropped by more than 50% from 105,000 in 2019 to slightly more than 45,000 in 2020. Tickets dropped further again to 27,596 for the first 10 months of this year. Stops with warnings from troopers fell from 2019 to 2020, but then rebounded in the first 10 months this year at more than 27,000 warnings, surpassing all of 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.

State transportation commissioner Joseph Giulietti described the increased fatalities as “a real crisis’' as the numbers continued to rise late last year.

“If you think it seems more dangerous out on Connecticut’s highways and interstates lately, you’re right,” Giulietti said. “It is a real crisis. It’s happening here and it’s happening across the country. We are seeing an unprecedented increase in fatalities.”

He added, “Combined with the speed and aggressive driving patterns since the start of the pandemic, we are pleading with Connecticut drivers to be more vigilant than ever. We need to do everything we can to stop this trend.”

Christopher Keating can be reached at

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