HARTFORD – A plan that would allow municipalities to install traffic cameras to automate speed and red light enforcement gained overwhelming approval from the state House on Tuesday, as lawmakers look to address record traffic deaths in Connecticut.
The traffic cameras were the most contentious part of a traffic safety bill that seeks to enact changes recommended by the state’s Vision Zero Council, which also includes studies on allowing the “Idaho stop” – where cyclists can treat stop signs as yield signs, and red lights as stop signs – and banning drivers from turning right at red lights.
State Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, chair of the Transportation Committee, said the bill looks to address a change in the “behavioral norm” of drivers that has made Connecticut’s roads deadlier in recent years.
In 2022, 239 people died in traffic crashes, an increase of 41.5 percent from five years ago. And 75 pedestrians were killed, a 31 percent increase from five years ago, according to the Department of Transportation.
“Yes, we would authorize, in a limited way, some automated enforcement under very specific criteria for a very limited period of time, because this is a hard choice we need to make,” Lemar said. “There needs to be new behavioral norms in Connecticut. What we’ve seen on our roadways, frankly, is shocking.”
Overcoming concerns about the traffic cameras, the bill passed the House by a 104-46 vote, with nine Democrats voting against the bill and 16 Republicans voting in favor. The bill still needs approval from the Senate and Gov. Ned Lamont before becoming law.
Some lawmakers and the American Civil Liberties Union have long opposed opening the door to traffic cameras in Connecticut. In testimony this year, ACLU Connecticut counsel Jessica Zaccagnino said the group is still concerned about due process and privacy concerns, increasing police surveillance and targeting Black and brown drivers.
State Rep. Tim Ackert, R-Coventry, shared the due process concerns. Under the bill, the owner of a vehicle would be ticketed for a traffic violation, even if someone else was driving; Ackert questioned how that would work.
Lemar said the bill would make violations from an automated camera more akin to a municipal parking ticket than a charge they would get from a police stop, limiting fines at $50 for a first offense and $75 for a second. It’s similar to a parking ticket, which is issued to the owner of the car, not who parked it, he said. The fine could be appealed to the municipality and then to Superior Court, Lemar said.
“We want to take this seriously, but we also understood that we weren’t fining the individual operators, so we didn’t want to charge them the same way a cop would,” Lemar said. “We’re not making this points on a license, we’re not holding up registrations for failure to pay. We’re treating this like a parking ticket. You’re gonna get the message, you’re gonna get the fines, you’re gonna slow down.”
Lemar’s assurances weren’t enough to convince many Republicans, including State Rep. Craig Fishbein, who said it was a “bridge too far” considering the due process issues.
Lemar and State Rep. Kathy Kennedy, R-Milford, the ranking Republican on the Transportation Committee, tried to assure their colleagues that there were strict limits and local control over the program.
The town or city would need public hearings and local approval for any cameras, and then have their program evaluated by DOT to make sure the area has a history of traffic crashes and that it won’t disproportionately harm Black and brown drivers, Lemar said. That approval would have to be renewed every three years to ensure the cameras are actually helping, he said.
State Rep. Christopher Rosario, D-Bridgeport, one of the Democrats to vote against the bill, questioned how violations caught on cameras would be enforced, especially in a city where people move often. Ultimately, he said he didn’t support the bill because it doesn’t do enough to make streets safer.
“I understand the public safety aspects of automated enforcement. I don’t think automated enforcement is enough,” Rosario said. “I think we need to do more when it comes to traffic calming to prevent these types of accidents. I really believe that if you’re just going to put cameras on every stop sign or stop light, say on East Main Street or Boston Avenue, all you’re gonna get is a high definition video of a tragic accident, when we could be doing more.”
Earlier versions of the bill included a universal requirement that motorcycle drivers and passengers wear helmets, a change motorcycle riders have lobbied against strongly for years. The bill also originally prohibited any passenger in a vehicle from having an open container of alcohol. Both of those provisions were removed before the bill passed the House.
The bill still included the Idaho stop studies and right-on-red ban, which Lemar said he’s not sure are good ideas, but should be studied; as well as requiring the Department of Public Health to run an awareness campaign on the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs.
“I can’t make you love this,” Lemar said. “I can tell you that this is the right direction for our state because it will save lives.”