Roadways have become increasingly deadly.
Federal statistics show that traffic fatalities in the U.S. hit a 16-year high in 2021, with 42,915 deaths.
The number of deaths increased in several categories: daytime fatalities were up 11 percent; fatal motorcycle accidents were up 9 percent; deaths among bicyclists, and deaths attributed to speeding, each increased 5 percent.
Among the biggest increases were pedestrian fatalities, up 13 percent last year over the previous year. The number of Americans killed crossing the nation’s streets has risen steadily since 2009, when it was 4,109.
Last year it was 7,342.
Connecticut is following the trend. So far this year the state Department of Transportation is reporting 70 pedestrian fatalities, the most in 34 years. The total could rise because 2022 isn’t over, and because some crashes still under investigation haven’t been counted yet.
In Stamford this month, the numbers took on faces.
Double fatal moves debate
Early on the morning of Dec. 3, two 25-year-olds, co-workers at a downtown restaurant, were killed crossing Washington Boulevard at Main Street.
Giovanni Vega Benis and Yuliana Arias, both Stamford residents, were walking west across the boulevard, a divided four-lane state route, when they were struck by a 2022 Mercedes driven by 24-year-old Michael Talbot of Greenwich, police have said.
Talbot ran from his car but an officer found him hiding behind a Dumpster nearby, according to Stamford police. Benis and Arias were pronounced dead at Stamford Hospital.
So far Talbot has not been charged. Police have said they are thoroughly investigating, including questions about whether Talbot was speeding or intoxicated.
Benis and Arias were the fourth and fifth pedestrians to die on Stamford streets in 2022.
Among the six fatal traffic accidents in the city this year, four involved pedestrians. All of the pedestrian deaths occurred on state roads that are main arteries through the city. Washington Boulevard has been the site of repeated pedestrian fatalities over the years.
Beyond fatalities, pedestrians in Stamford are struck and survive with regularity. This year 81 motor vehicle crashes involved pedestrians – an average of nearly seven a month.
The data comes from Frank Petise, chief of the city’s Transportation, Traffic and Parking Bureau, who presented it Dec. 20 to members of the Stamford Board of Representatives’ Transportation Committee. Members called for a review of pedestrian safety measures.
Getting down to none
During the meeting, Mayor Caroline Simmons said her administration is planning a road safety audit and working with the state DOT and members of the state legislature’s Stamford delegation.
“We are committed to doing everything we can to stop these tragedies,” she said.
In September Simmons created a task force dedicated to Vision Zero, a strategy promoted by the Federal Highway Administration to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries among road users.
Vision Zero was implemented in Sweden in the 1990s, and then across Europe. In the last decade it has gained momentum in the U.S. as cities and counties employ the strategy, built on three prongs – engineering, education, and enforcement.
Petise said the strategy aims to change the traditional approach to traffic safety – that deaths are inevitable; road design is based on humans behaving perfectly; preventing collisions is the goal; and it’s up to individuals to act responsibly.
Vision Zero thinking is that traffic deaths are preventable; roads must be designed to accommodate human mistakes; preventing fatalities and serious injury is the goal; and the onus is on systems to work well.
“We have to look at the system as a whole, and better identify risk areas,” Petise told committee members.
Big vehicles get some blame
Among road users, “the most vulnerable are pedestrians,” Petise said, and “speed is a major factor in pedestrian fatalities.”
Five percent of pedestrians die when struck by a car traveling at 20 mph, Petise said, citing data from the National Traffic Safety Board.
The fatality rate jumps to 45 percent when the car is traveling at 30 mph, and 85 percent when the speed is 40 mph.
Petise said the popularity of large vehicles is contributing to the increase in pedestrian deaths. SUVs and pickup trucks now comprise more than three-quarters of vehicle sales in the U.S., Petise said.
SUVs and pickups are heavier and bring more force to a crash, he said, and drivers of large vehicles have more blind spots, especially when turning.
“These vehicles have a higher hood line, so the pedestrian is struck in the torso instead of the legs, which leads to more injuries and fatalities,” Petise said.
To protect pedestrians, Petise said, traffic engineers are looking at projects that will narrow lane widths to slow motorists down; build bump-outs at intersections to reduce the length of crosswalks; create pedestrian “refuge islands” in large crosswalks; increase use of roundabouts to slow traffic; build raised crosswalks to make pedestrians more visible and slow vehicles; build more lead time into pedestrian crossing signals; and review No Turn on Red restrictions.
‘Heads in phones’
Public Safety Director Lou DeRubeis told city representatives that the education part of the Vision Zero strategy is crucial. He is concerned about University of Connecticut students who walk along Washington Boulevard between the downtown Stamford campus and the dorms and other destinations.
“Speeding is a big part of the problem but the message has to go out to students – you have to get your head out of your phone when you’re crossing busy intersections,” said DeRubeis, who was a Stamford police officer before becoming director.
He sees pedestrians, students and otherwise, not paying attention and not using crosswalks or safety signals, DeRubeis said. He was stopped at Washington and Tresser boulevards recently when he saw a student try to cross recklessly and nearly get hit, he said.
“He didn’t see how fast the cars were coming up on him,” DeRubeis said.
City Rep. Monica Di Costanzo said motorists also have to “get their heads out of their phones.” She suggested that the city set up an online platform where students and other pedestrians can report dangerous incidents.
“There are a lot of near-misses,” Di Costanzo said. “We are not capturing that at all.”
Where’s the enforcement?
City Rep. Daniel Sandford said he thinks Stamford has a lot of work to do on the enforcement aspect of the Vision Zero strategy. The biggest complaints he hears from his constituents are about speeding and pedestrian safety, Sandford said.
“For years I have been screaming about enforcement, and I hear the same thing – that we don’t have the manpower,” Sandford said.
Before the double fatality on Washington Boulevard, he asked how many speeding tickets are issued in Stamford and learned that the average is about two a day, Sandford said.
Stamford has a population of 136,000 that increases each weekday with all the people who drive in to work.
“On High Ridge Road in front of Rippowam (Middle School) there’s a 25 mph sign, but people don’t care. They speed through the intersection – no cops, no tickets,” Sandford said.
“One way to educate people is to start handing out tickets. When people start writing big checks because they were going 50 mph in a school zone” it sends a message, he said. “Change your behavior or there will be consequences.”
DeRubeis said Stamford has a Traffic Enforcement Unit staffed with four officers who are on the road five days a week. Beyond that, officers outside the traffic unit will be encouraged to do more, DeRubeis said.
“It’s not necessarily about giving a ticket; it’s about being visible on the roadways. That’s what has the biggest impact,” DeRubeis said. “The past several years have been difficult for law enforcement. … the key is to get officers back in a rhythm of generating more motor vehicle stops.”
After a Black man, George Floyd, was murdered at the hands of a White Minneapolis police officer two years ago, there were nationwide protests and demands for police accountability, racial reckoning, and reforms. Since then, police morale and new hiring have fallen, and the number of retirements and resignations has jumped.
“A lot of officers have been hesitant to get engaged with proactive police work, but I think the tide has turned,” DeRubeis said. “Officers join the police department to do something. They want to get involved. We had a bump in the road the last few years but the culture is starting to swing back.”