After the deadliest year ever on Connecticut’s roads, prior concerns about privacy and over-policing have been swept aside, and lawmakers are under growing pressure to allow traffic cameras as one way to reduce traffic fatalities.
A bill would give cities and towns the power to allow traffic enforcement cameras in school zones, pedestrian safety zones, and other locations with a history of crashes from people running stop signs or red lights – with state approval. Police could use the cameras to fine drivers who speed or run red lights.
239 drivers and passengers died in crashes last year – an increase of 41.5 percent from five years before – according to the Connecticut Department of Transportation, and 75 pedestrians were killed, an increase of 31 percent over the last five years.
Waterbury Police Chief Fernando Spagnolo said 20 people died in motor vehicle crashes in Waterbury last year, more than double the previous year. There was also an increase in “near-fatal” crashes – with speed and aggressive and distracted driving contributing to the severe crashes, he said.
Spagnolo said he supports the expansion of traffic cameras, and said Waterbury would be eager to be a part of a pilot program for expanded cameras. The police department and city have identified 10 streets where crashes happen at much higher rates, and are continuing to happen despite the department’s traffic enforcement campaigns, he said.
“Any increase in accidents, especially fatal or serious ones, is too large,” Spagnolo said. “And sadly, the majority of these are preventable.”
Lawmakers have debated for years whether to expand the use of cameras as a way to boost enforcement of traffic violations, and in 2021, a pilot program to install cameras in highway work zones was approved as part of the state budget.
Transportation Commissioner Garrett Eucalitto said that while the department’s ultimate goal is to make the design of the state’s road safer, that takes time, and he said automated traffic enforcement has been proven to reduce serious injuries and save lives by preventing what he said are “avoidable crashes caused by human choices.”
Concerns that cameras would invade the public’s privacy and disproportionately target Black and Brown drivers have stalled the expansion of traffic cameras in the past. But the criticism was relatively silent during the public hearing Monday as lawmakers took testimony on a package of proposals from the Vision Zero Council: including barring passengers from having open containers of alcohol and calling on DOT to create a policy to make new intersections safer.
Carol Platt Liebau, president of the conservative-leaning Yankee Institute, was one of the few critics of the proposal who spoke at the hearing. She said cameras should be “out of the question for those who embrace an equity agenda,” considering reports that they disproportionately impact Black and Latino drivers in Chicago.
“I think it’s worth noting in a representative democracy, that everywhere these cameras have been tried, people hate them and see them as little more than government money grabs,” Liebau said. “Finally, constant monitoring by law enforcement is simply unbecoming of free people.”
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 22 states allow red light cameras and 18 allow cameras for speed enforcement.
In written testimony to the commission, retired New Haven traffic and parking administrator Charles Wailonis said cameras increase accidents at red lights by causing drivers to “panic and slam on their brakes” at yellow lights to avoid a ticket. And camera programs across the country have been “rife with scandal and corruption,” he wrote.
Eucalitto said the proposal had safeguards to ensure the cameras weren’t used as a “money grab,” to protect driver’s privacy by destroying images after their case is resolved, and to make sure it’s used in places with histories of speeding and crashes.
“Driver behavior has definitely changed in the past three years – increased willingness to disregard community safety, selfishness and risky behavior,” Eucalitto said. “These provisions in this bill can help change that behavior.”
Several residents of New Haven said people are being hit and killed in the city because drivers are speeding and running through red lights and stop signs without enforcement. Yale medical student Aishwarya Pillai said that two people have been killed just at the intersection right in front of the hospital since 2016, when she’s been a student there. Other residents said driving laws are broken routinely because there isn’t enforcement, putting them at risk.
“So many drivers are speeding and running through red lights [at York Street and South Frontage Road in New Haven] and across the city and state, and that’s because there’s minimal enforcement and nothing deterring them from putting lives at risk,” New HAven resident Abigail Roth told the committee. “Until we redesign our streets statewide to calm traffic and protect vulnerable road users, the only way to significantly rescue the number of people killed is to increase enforcement.”
Eucalitto said the law doesn’t allow cameras to go wherever municipalities want them, but targets their use to areas either meant to protect students or pedestrians, or where the municipality can demonstrate to the state that there’s a need for one because of a history of crashes.
To install a camera outside a school zone or pedestrian safety zone, the town or city would need to petition the state to allow it, and the state would review data for the area to decide if it was warranted, he said.
State Rep. Gary Turco, D-Newington, said he thought it was “reactive” to limit cameras only to places where there have been problems with crashes in the past. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said he agreed that more flexibility would be better, but said there are many intersections where the city could demonstrate the need for a camera.
“Our community regularly calls for speed and traffic enforcement,” Bronin said. “It is not possible for police to be everywhere at all times, nor do I think it’s desirable for our police to be responding all the time to traffic incidents when it’s possible to use automated means of enforcement.”
Including Bronin, representatives from Connecticut’s larger cities said they would support expanding the use of traffic cameras as one way to prevent more people being killed by crashes.
Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons said there were six fatal crashes and five pedestrians killed in the city last year. All were on state roads, she said – including two 25-year-old pedestrians who were killed in December by a man who police say was driving 86 mph on Washington Boulevard.
State Rep. Geraldo Reyes, D-Waterbury, said South Main Street in Waterbury has a similar problem to Washington Boulevard in Stamford – a windy state road where people drive at high speeds, and one that has been the site of many accidents.
Simmons said she has heard residents of Stamford calling for more traffic enforcement, and said she supported “adding more tools to our toolbox for enforcement.”