WATERBURY — Top law enforcement officials are promising more visibility on Vermont roads after a spate of fatal crashes in recent days that have left eight people dead.
Department of Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Anderson joined state, county and local law enforcement officials at a news conference Tuesday to highlight their efforts to improve highway safety throughout the state. The news conference followed a several-day period that saw three fatal crashes, including one in Bridport Monday that resulted in four fatalities.
“It’s been a tragic few days on Vermont’s roadways,” Anderson said.
Gov. Phil Scott also noted the uptick in fatalities in a statement.
“We’ve seen a tragic increase in highway deaths this week and my heart goes out to the families who’ve lost loved ones,” the governor said. “I’ve directed my Department of Public Safety and Agency of Transportation to put ‘all hands on deck’ to protect Vermonters and increase awareness of safety risks. Please be sure you and your loved ones buckle up, slow down and stay safe on our roadways.”
Anderson said the Vermont State Police and its law enforcement partners at the local and county level will be more present on roads working in the coming days and weeks “to change behaviors.”
“These crashes should be a stark reminder to all of us who drive in Vermont of our responsibility to drive safely,” Anderson said. “We do know that seven of the eight people who died were not wearing seat belts. Statistically, a person wearing a seat belt is 60 to 70 percent more likely to survive a serious crash than an unbelted person. It’s simple — buckling up saves your life and saves the life of your loved ones. It is the single most important thing a person can do when getting into a car.”
Distracted driving, speeding and people driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs continue to put motorists at risk, Anderson said.
“Drivers engaged in these irresponsible actions continue to be the greatest threat to highway safety in Vermont. Law enforcement can write more and more tickets, we can make more and more arrests, but ultimately, this comes down to driver responsibility,” he said. “That will have an effect, but it’s probably a short-term effect. Really, it’s trying to change people’s behavior.”
Colchester Police Chief Jennifer Morrison, the president of the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police, said law enforcement officers need the public’s help to make roads safer.
“Everyday police officers work diligently to keep our highways safe, but we can’t do it alone. We need your help. High visibility and enhanced enforcement will be trumped every time by lack of personal responsibility and risk-taking,” she said.
Drivers must focus on their responsibilities behind the wheel, Morrison said.
“Your job includes watching your speed, not allowing distractions and not driving while impaired in any way. Drivers, do your job,” she said.
Passengers should also insist that drivers “do their job.”
“If you see the driver or other passengers engaging in risky behavior, step up, say something, and maybe save a life. The life that you save may be your own,” Morrison said. “Please help us by doing your part.”
Anderson said Tuesday that he was not willing to say if his department favored making Vermont’s seat belt law a primary violation. Under currently law, police cannot stop a vehicle because a driver or passenger is not wearing a seat belt. Police must have a primary infraction to stop someone.
“I don’t know that this is a matter of new laws and enforcement of more laws,” he said. “If we have a mandatory seat belt law, is that then going to create a greater percentage of people that buckle up? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. If we change the people think about that to say, ‘Hey, buckling up is going to make me safer, it’s going to make the people in my vehicle safer,’ that’s ultimately what we really want, not whether it’s going to be a violation of the law.”
Lt. John Flannigan, the traffic safety commander for the Vermont State Police, said Vermont’s secondary seat belt law allows police to add a $25 fine to an underlying primary offense, such as speeding.
Flannigan said the eight recent deaths put the state ahead of last year’s pace for traffic fatalities by two. So far in 2017, 57 percent of the people killed in crashes were not wearing a seat belt, Flannigan said. Additionally, 44 percent of the drivers involved in fatal crashes are suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs or both.