Across the United States and Connecticut, traffic-related deaths have been on the rise, including those involving pedestrians and bicyclists as well as vehicle crashes.
In Connecticut, 327 roadway deaths occurred in 2021, up from 249 in 2019, according to data presented by Stamford’s Transportation Bureau. In 2021, there were 61 pedestrian fatalities across the state. For 2022, through the first half of December, there were 62 pedestrian fatalities in Connecticut, with five of those pedestrian fatalities taking place in the city of Stamford.
Two of those fatalities took place early in the morning of December 3, when Giovanni Vega Benis and Yuliana Arias, two 25-year-old Stamford residents, were struck and killed crossing Washington Boulevard at Main Street. The investigation is ongoing, although Stamford police have said that they were struck by a 2022 Mercedes driven by 24-year-old Michael Talbot of Greenwich.
“This has been one of the deadliest years for pedestrian fatalities across Connecticut,” Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons told the Transportation Committee of the Board of Representatives on December 20. Earlier that afternoon, officials said that there was another fatal car accident in the city.
“Pedestrian safety is on all our minds,” she said. “The Stamford Police Department and my team are doing everything that we can to make sure justice is served.”
Simmons said that the pedestrian fatalities “are unacceptable.”
Representative David Watkins, who chairs the committee, said that he wanted to have a discussion on traffic and pedestrian safety, particularly in light of what had happened.
“It is the case, there has been a recent tragedy with two people killed and now we’ve just heard of another one that just happened this afternoon,” he said. “It reminded us that traffic safety should be top of mind for our city.”
“Quick Fixes” For Washington Boulevard
Washington Boulevard is a state road that runs through the heart of Stamford, including through its downtown.
It’s one of the most traveled roads in the city and also one of the most dangerous, particularly for pedestrians, according to Stamford’s pedestrian safety data. Of the five pedestrian deaths that occurred in Stamford in 2022, three came along Washington Boulevard.
“We know that road is dangerous,” Simmons said. “People are speeding. There’s work to be done to make sure that road is safer for pedestrians.”
She talked about some immediate actions including “better enforcement” and raised crosswalks, as well as a “road safety audit.”
Lou DeRubeis, director of Public Safety, Health, and Welfare, also emphasized that they need “immediate results on Washington Boulevard,” and that there have been “really productive” conversations with the state to add enforcement, since it’s also a state road and needs to be done in partnership with the Department of Transportation.
He also noted that the December 3 case is “getting worked 24/7” with a goal to serve justice to the families who lost loved ones.
Representatives including Watkins and vice chair Terry Adams also suggested using signs that flash when drivers pass over the speed limit and parking cop cars in that area as a deterrent.
Engineering, Education, Enforcement
Simmons also emphasized the need to get “drivers to slow down not just on Washington Boulevard, but on all of our state roads.” Pedestrian safety and traffic safety in general has been two stated priorities of Simmons’ administration since she took office in 2021.
“Pedestrian safety has to be a priority in our city,” DeRubeis said, adding that it’s particularly important since Stamford is a “young, vibrant, pedestrian-geared city.”
In Sept. 2022, Simmons signed an executive order related to Vision Zero, an initiative that aims to “eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all”
The overarching goal of Vision Zero is to achieve zero roadway-related deaths, according to Frank Petise, the city’s Bureau Chief for Transportation, Traffic, and Parking. It aims to look at the system as a whole and integrate human mistakes into roadway design to help “prevent fatal and severe crashes.”
Stamford is working on three main efforts under Vision Zero—engineering, education, and enforcement—that all work together to help reduce the number of fatalities on the streets. The initiative requires city officials to look at how streets can be designed to be safer, how enforcement can be increased “so we can get our drivers to slow down,” and how members of the public can be better educated to be safer while walking and driving.
Petise said that “the roadway system should be designed to prevent fatalities,” which includes reducing speeds on the roads, separating users through things like protected bike lanes, raised crosswalks, and sidewalks, and improving the visibility for road users to see each other.
Petise laid out some of the city’s efforts around this, including targeted traffic enforcement, developing a dashboard for crash data, and creating a Vision Zero action plan.
DeRubeis emphasized the need for education as a part of this.
“Speeding vehicles is a big part of the problem, but we also have to make sure we put out the messaging that you have to get your head out of your phone when you’re walking on the sidewalks and crossing these busy crosswalks,” he said. “That’s why I think Vision Zero is a really good approach. [It] doesn’t just involve engineering.”
Consequences for Reckless Drivers
Representative Daniel Sandford said that concerns around traffic safety are one of the main reasons he decided to get involved and run for the Board of Representatives.
“It’s the biggest complaint that I get—people speeding and pedestrian safety,” he said. “I’m all on board with trying to reduce—to eliminate—any fatalities.”
He emphasized the need for enforcement and said he’s been inquiring with the legal department if there’s a way to add a municipal surcharge to traffic tickets that can be invested into pedestrian safety improvements.
“For years, I’ve been screaming about it,” he said. “I hear, ‘we don’t have the manpower. We don’t have this.’”
He said that he requested data for speeding tickets before the December 3 accident happened and found out the city was giving out about two speeding tickets a day.
“One way to educate, we start handing out tickets,” he said. “We’ve got to start changing behaviors… when I come into Stamford, you never see anyone pulled over.”
He added that he knows police can’t be in every place, but that the city “has to work with what we’ve got,” and one way to do that is to enforce the traffic laws.
Representative Monica Di Costanzo said that the “city is under immense pressure to gain some control” over a very difficult issue. While she said she appreciated the “hard data” city officials shared at the meeting, she also emphasized a need for “soft data” or reports on what people are seeing on the streets.
“We’ve talked a lot about ‘near misses,’ not [just] what’s reported in an accident report,” she said.
While representatives and city officials said they would work to implement some near-term responses to address concerns, they did acknowledge that traffic and pedestrian safety are long-term issues that involve educating the community, changing behaviors, and working to improve roadway designs.
“We all drive the same streets to work, we all see this problem,” Sandford said. “We all live in the same community—we want to make it better.”
Want to learn more about Stamford’s efforts to improve pedestrian and traffic safety? Want to be a part of the conversation happening in the city around these areas? The Stamford’s Vision Zero Task Force is hosting its monthly meeting on Tuesday, January 3 at 9:30 a.m. Residents are invited to “listen and hear updates from City officials regarding Stamford's Vision Zero Initiative.”