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Connecticut’s roads are deadlier than ever. Figuring out why is complicated.

Traffic along Interstate 84 in Hartford. Despite there being fewer vehicles on the road, traffic fatalities have surged since the pandemic began. (Yehyun Kim, CTMirror.org)

On March 23, 2020, Connecticut came to a standstill.

In an effort to control the devastating spread of COVID-19, Gov. Ned Lamont instructed all non-essential businesses to stop in-person operations and asked residents to “Stay Safe, Stay at Home.”

As state after state issued lockdown orders, roads across the country emptied. Major highways were eerily deserted, and traffic fell to new lows.

But something else started to happen, too. Even though there were fewer cars on the road, more people were dying in car crashes.

“We had the lockdown period where [the number of] people driving in our state plummeted, but we saw more people die on our roadways in 2020 than 2019, which made no sense,” said Garrett Eucalitto, the deputy commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Transportation.

In 2020, 301 people died in car crashes in Connecticut, according to data tracked by the DOT, a 21% increase over the previous year. At the time, it was the most traffic fatalities the state had experienced in a single year since 2016. The trend stunned public health and traffic safety experts. Then, in 2021, the number of people that died in accidents continued to increase, with the latest estimate totaling 323 deaths.

“Those are [each] an individual who is not going home that night. That’s a life, that’s an entire family and community disrupted,” said Eucalitto.

This isn’t just happening in Connecticut. States all over the country are seeing the same pattern: Traffic fatalities increased in the wake of pandemic lockdowns, even though fewer cars were on the road.

The issue has caught the attention of the federal government. Just this week, the DOT’s Federal Highway Administration announced an increase in funding focused on improving roadway safety, particularly for pedestrians and bikers.

But why the pandemic coincided with an increase in traffic deaths is still a mystery.

That’s partly because determining the underlying cause of a crash is an imperfect science. Did it happen because, for example, the driver of the first car was using their cell phone or because the driver of the second car was speeding?

When an accident occurs, police officers try to recreate the crash and identify the major factors at play, which they then include in a report.

Teams at the state Department of Transportation and UConn’s Connecticut Transportation Safety Research Center cross-reference data from the police departments with data from death certificates and toxicology reports to get an even fuller picture of the accident.

Experts are still pulling together all these pieces for 2021 crashes, so they don’t completely understand the underlying causes for the increase in fatal crashes since the start of the pandemic.

“We don’t have a really perfect picture as to what’s causing it,” said Eucalitto. “We have some beliefs and assumptions.”

Reckless driving

One thing is for sure: People are driving faster.

“During the lockdown, as traffic dropped, people had more opportunities to go faster because there weren’t more cars on the roadway. And what we’re also seeing is that those speeds haven’t decreased now that traffic has picked back up,” said Eric Jackson, director of the Connecticut Transportation Safety Research Center, which maintains the state’s crash data repository.

"We can measure speed on the roadways, and we know there is an increase and a shift in the way people drive," he said. And the faster cars are going, the more likely it is that the crash will be fatal.

Traffic along Interstate 84 in Hartford. Despite fewer vehicles on the road, traffic fatalities have surged since the pandemic began. (Yehyun Kim, CTMirror.org)

Impaired driving is also playing an increased role in fatal accidents. According to data from the Connecticut Crash Data Repository, in 2020, 80 drivers killed in traffic accidents were under the influence of either drugs, alcohol or medication. That’s more than a 33% increase over 2019 and nearly double the number of DUI-involved driver fatalities in 2015. This includes only cases in which the impaired driver was killed and does not account for cases in which an impaired driver causes the death of someone else.

The data for 2021 is still being processed, but Jackson expects it will show more DUI-involved crash deaths.

“I think if we start to dig deeper into impaired driving stats for 2021, we will see an increase in fatalities where drugs, alcohol, and the combination will be higher than in years past. Connecticut was already a leader in the nation for impaired fatals,” he said.

How the pandemic affected drivers

Jackson believes that there is also a mental health response to the pandemic at play on roadways.

“The other part that I think is much harder to prove is that people are stressed out a lot more, they have a lot more that they have to deal with mentally,” he said. “I think that carries over into the road.”

Nick Maltby, a Farmington-based psychologist, said the increase in reckless driving could be partially explained by an increased threshold for risk as a result of the pandemic.

“When you’re faced with something that can bring death, things that appeared risky before don’t seem that risky anymore,” Maltby said.

One area where Maltby has seen this play out is among soldiers returning home from war.

“Your sense of relative risk changes because you’re aware that bad things can happen to you at any moment. One thing that teaches you is to live very ‘present-focused,’” said Maltby.

That focus on the present can lead some people to make risky decisions in the moment, disregarding the impact those decisions may have in the future.

“It takes [people who return from some military service] a long time to plan successfully for the future again.”

Studies have found that soldiers exposed to combat are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, including alcohol abuse and reckless driving, upon their return home than they were pre-deployment.

And soldiers aren't the only ones who respond this way to traumatic, life-threatening experiences.

A 2014 study found that children who experience cumulative trauma are more likely to exhibit high risk behaviors in adolescence, including skipping school, running away from home and self-injury. Several studies have also shown increases in intergroup violence, alcohol and substance abuse, and suicidal behaviors among populations who survive natural disasters.

Traffic along Interstate 84 in Hartford. Despite there being fewer vehicles on the road, traffic fatalities have surged since the pandemic began. (Yehyun Kim, CTMirror.org)

The pandemic might have had a similar effect on individuals. For two years, people have dealt with the threat of a deadly virus that has changed life dramatically.

“It’s so overarching that we all, whether you took it seriously or didn’t take it as seriously, it was so prevalent in society that it made you present-focused,” said Maltby.

For many of us, the pandemic may have triggered a focus on the present that has increased our risk threshold more broadly — reckless driving isn’t the only risky behavior on the rise in the wake of COVID.

In 2020, the U.S. experienced a 30% surge in the murder rate, the sharpest increase in a century. Between April 2020 and April 2021, the number of Americans who died of a drug overdose — more than 100,000 people — increased by 29%. Firearm sales reached record highs in 2020, and, though sales declined slightly in 2021, they were still much higher than pre-pandemic levels. Even cigarette sales increased in 2020 — the first annual increase in sales in two decades.

Less enforcement

Police are also giving out far fewer tickets.

Like the trend in traffic fatalities, this pattern began at the start of the pandemic, and the numbers of tickets issued has dropped. The overall number of infractions issued, as measured by the Racial Profiling Prohibition Project, dropped 60% from 2019 to 2020. Similarly, according to the state Judicial Department, tickets that led to convictions dropped more than 60% between 2019 and 2020. The same severe drop was evident at both the state police and local departments.

Why are police giving out fewer tickets?

Part of it has to do with staffing. The state police, as well as local departments, have reported severe staffing shortages. Fewer officers means less enforcement.

Avon Police Chief James Rio said the department was lucky to hire four officers during the pandemic to bring them to full staff, but he said he knows other municipalities, like the state police, haven’t been so lucky.

“If a smaller department loses one or two officers, that’s significant, and that impacts what you can do,” Rio said.

The state police have about 970 sworn members, an improvement over a few years ago when the number dipped below 900, but nowhere near staffing levels from 10 years or so ago when there were nearly 1,300 sworn members.

The 129th Training Troop of the Connecticut State Police Training Academy had a graduation ceremony in October 2020 in Hartford. (Yehyun Kim, CTMirror.org)

Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who serves as the co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Public Safety Committee, said that even though the state has approved a number of classes of new troopers recently, the department is still catching up.

“So my sense is that part of the problem with state police staffing is that even though we've had a lot of classes put in over the last four years, they're not keeping up with the number of retirements that they've had. They're maybe going up a few but not enough to make a significant difference,” Osten said.

“I think we'll probably have to have another two, maybe three, years of classes just to get where we need to be.”

The way police interact with the public has also changed in the last two years.

Rep. Greg Howard, a Republican from Stonington who has been a police officer in the town for 20 years, said he has no doubt there is a correlation between the decrease in tickets being issued and the number of police officers on the roads enforcing traffic laws.

But, Howard said, there are other factors at play that have caused officers to interact with the public less than they did before. He believes it is a combination of the pandemic, particularly at the beginning, the aftermath of the George Floyd case, and the police accountability bill that was passed in this state after Floyd’s murder.

“In the spring of 2020, I think it was mostly we were not going to stop cars unless we really had to, because we just didn’t know what we were dealing with at that point with the virus,” Howard said.

Rio also said that, pre-pandemic, the Avon police department was focusing on traffic stops and enforcement because that’s what residents were complaining about. But, once the pandemic hit, officers were told not to stop people unnecessarily.

By the time the first wave of the pandemic subsided and people started driving more, Floyd was murdered, setting off protests against the police all over the country and cries to defund police departments.

10 comments

Piberman February 12, 2022 at 3:54 pm

Driving CT’s highways for nearly 4 decades I can’t recall seeing an auto/truck being pulled over for speeding. Cars/trucks routinely cruise at 65 when 55 is posted and do 70/75 when 65 is posted. Its often downright terrifying especially when the trucks are doing 65/70 mph in the left lanes. The obvious question is why overhead electronic monitors aren’t occasionally used on CT highways. Others States use them reportedly with good results.

Niz February 12, 2022 at 4:52 pm

I think Driving / auto accident fatalities are Itop reason for death in America.
Analyst need look at the motorists, their condition, road conditions at time of collision… a lot plays into it and until that’s divulged we cannot make moves / changes to prevent it. IJS

DryAsABone February 12, 2022 at 6:07 pm

Angry drivers raised on silly games and movies that do not reflect reality.
Angry entitled people who feel that they “own the road”.
Lazy troopers and local police who do now care to enforce rules, opting for overtime on utilty projects instead of of protecting the general public.
Think of it this way…the more tickets the more revenue. But it has never been that way.
Tie compensation into revenue and perhaps we might (might) see some change.

Audrey Cozzarin February 12, 2022 at 11:03 pm

A friend who lives in Stamford calls our region’s roadways “The Wild West”.

Obviously it’s a behavioral issue. Increased fatalities and accidents could be attributed to an attitude of lawlessness on the part of motorists (speeding, primarily, as reported) and doing little about it on the part of law enforcement. Not a great combo.

If each of us drives safely, that would be a great start in getting us out of this situation. Checking our anger at the car door. The rules of the road are in place to keep us from smacking into each other. Otherwise, we have anarchy. It’s all a choice.

I try to slow down and enjoy the ride, especially with spring in the air!

David Osler February 14, 2022 at 8:23 am

I normally love your work overly long article for something that can be summed up as alcohol speed depression and stupid enough to drive with a mask on your face distracting you I also suspect a drop in road maintenance has a factor as well and something that I didn’t see mentioned wildlife was more active near roads

Jalna Jaeger February 14, 2022 at 8:45 am

I saw speeding and weaving among the traffic last week on I95 ! I lived in the Netherlands 9 years ago,and they had cameras that tracked your speed,and sent you a ticket! The speed limit was obeyed. I think we are way behind in any speed enforcement!

Sam Tyler February 14, 2022 at 9:33 am

Here, in the USA, we continue to ignore the most significant failure of our (driver) licensing requirements. Anyone who can use turn signals and parallel park gets a license. We need to require more comprehensive driver training. Most drivers do not understand the capabilities (braking, handling, accident avoidance capabilities, etc.) of their vehicles because of no training. In addition, our trend to crossovers and large SUVs, is becoming more of an issue as these vehicles do not have the stopping and avoidance capabilities of smaller and lighter vehicles.
All wheel drive is not a great improvement unless we are trained and understand the abilities (and lack thereof)of our vehicles.
In addition, it is true that over the road trucks are sometimes also at fault. May times these truckers form tightly knit trains, hogging the center lane of our highways, making it difficult and dangerous for other vehicles to merge left or right. Also truckers tend to tailgate when they feel that the vehicle ahead is not moving fast enough for them.

Barry Kasdan February 14, 2022 at 12:36 pm

The Automobile Industry has many car ads that display high speed and stunt style driving, which at times borders on reckless driving. Some even take place on city streets…..the message seems to focus on speed, risk-taking, stunts and joyriding. This may tap into the emotional turmoil people are in during the pandemic. Perhaps driving becomes a release of emotions rather than a means to get to a destination.
The auto industry needs to be more aware of the potential impact of their ads!

Norwalk High Neighbor February 14, 2022 at 7:00 pm

Speeding trucks in the left lanes, huge influx of NY and NJ plates (from people moving to the “suburbs”) who brought their aggressive driving with them, people who became used to highways with hardly any traffic due to COVID remote work, understaffed CT State Police, ridiculous LED lights (bright white, red and blue) meant to make you get out of “their” way. Really not hard to figure out. Hire more troopers and go back to staffing levels of 2 per car! Bob D. – you listening? Might even be time for speed cameras on the highways!

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