Hartford — New Haven State Rep. Roland Lemar is taking a second swing at protecting “vulnerable users” — using newfound influence to try to fix flaws that prevented a previous law he authored from punishing reckless drivers who crash into pedestrians or cyclists.
At the start of this year’s state legislative session in January, Lemar, a fifth-term Democratic state legislator who represents East Rock, Fair Haven, Wooster Square, and parts of East Haven, ascended to the role of House chair of the state assembly’s Transportation Committee.
During a three-and-a-half-hour public hearing at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford on Wednesday afternoon, Lemar flexed his newfound muscles as committee chair to champion three laws that would broaden the definition of “vulnerable user,” allow towns and cities to reduce local speed limits to 20 miles per hour, and protect pedestrians as they cross the road in a crosswalk.
Lemar said that the new laws are an effort to recognize that roads are not just for cars passing through a city, but also for people who live in the city and next to the roads as well.
“You can either construct these as thruways,” Lemar said about city roads and the laws that govern them, “or as building blocks for a neighborhood.”
Despite modest pushback from a few suburban legislators skeptical of prioritizing pedestrian safety over traffic flow, Lemar earned support from the three members of the public who came up to Hartford to testify before the committee on Wednesday.
On the 33rd page of the 34 page scooter bill, Lemar has added several key updates to a 2014 state law that imposes a fine of up to $1,000 on drivers who crash into and almost kill such “vulnerable users” as pedestrians, cyclists, the physically disabled, and highway workers.
But time and time again over the past half-decade, drivers who have hit pedestrians in New Haven have not been charged with the vulnerable user penalty because of the original law’s ambiguous threshold of “serious physical injury.” Even a driver who sped into preschoolers on Howard Avenue last year didn’t get charged under the law. Or a Yale student who ignored a school bus’s stop sign and plowed into a 7-year-old. In both cases injured children went to the hospital. But police said the wording in the version of Lemar’s bill that originally passed prevented them from invoking it for “minor” injuries.
Getting Serious About “Serious”
“The original language was ‘serious physical injury,’” Lemar said during the hearing on Wednesday, “which local police departments have had a hard time defining, and therefore finding a way to utilize.”
The new language, added to the 33rd page of the 34-page electric scooter regulation bill, would broaden the vulnerable user definition to include electric scooter riders, and would broaden the law’s coverage to include those who suffer “substantial bodily harm” after being hit by a vehicle.
That means that drivers who crash into a pedestrian, cyclist, wheelchair user, or highway worker can be charged under the vulnerable user law not only if they nearly kill the victim, but also if they cause a broken arm or broken leg, or some other “temporary but substantial loss or impairment of the function of any bodily part or organ.”
“Do you think this will help in the application of the original vulnerable users bill,=?” Lemar asked Bike Walk CT Executive Director Susan Smith, one of the original promoters of the 2014 bill who had come up to Hartford on Wednesday to testify on another pedestrian-safety matter.
“Yes, absolutely,” Smith said.
Lemar asked the same question of New Haven deputy transit chief Michael Pinto (who leaves this post next week to begin his new job as the chief operating officer for New Haven Public Schools).
Pinto had come up to Hartford to testify in support of three transportation bills, including the new scooter regulations, though in his original testimony he hadn’t mentioned the vulnerable user provision tucked away at the end of the scooter bill.
“I don’t know if you’ve had experience with how the vulnerable users law has been utilized in New Haven,” Lemar said in support of the new, broader definition of bodily harm, “where we’re seeing people hit in crosswalks, but that original definition just didn’t apply. We want to change that to ensure our folks are protected who are crossing the streets and getting hit by cars.”
“We would fully welcome that,” Pinto said about the proposed change.
The only modest pushback to the pedestrian safety law came from Stamford and Darien State Sen. Carlo Leone, the committee’s Senate chair. (The legislature has two chambers, but only one set of committees, composed of members of both the Senate and House of Representatives.)
Leone raised his concerns about pedestrians bearing some culpability for car crashes in some instances during the testimony of Hartford pedestrian advocate Gannon Long.
Long testified to the committee in support of both the vulnerable user change as well as H.B. 7203, another proposed bill championed by Lemar, which would require motorists to grant the right-of-way to pedestrians who “affirmatively indicate their intention to cross the road in a crosswalk.”
Leone conceded that the layout of many American towns and cities privileges cars over pedestrians, and that state legislators need to be more aware of the dangers that non-drivers face when they have to share a road with a hurtling piece of motorized metal.
“But I don’t think any driver wants to hit a pedestrian,” he said. He added that pedestrians often walk into the middle of the road without paying attention to passing traffic, and needlessly endanger themselves and drivers. “I think we have to do education on both sides of the issue.”
Long disagreed. Pedestrians should have the right to walk leisurely and even a bit absentmindedly through their neighborhoods without having to worry about getting crushed by a car, she said. Plus, she said, when a pedestrian bumps into a car, no one gets hurt. But when a car bumps into a pedestrian, that pedestrian might die.
A Lower Speed Limit
The third pedestrian safety measure that Lemar helped champion at Wednesday’s Transportation Committee hearing was H.B. 6590, a proposed law introduced by Hartford State Rep. Julio Concepcion. It would allow municipal traffic authorities to reduce local speed limits by 15 miles per hour below the state’s 35 mile-per-hour statewide minimum.
That would mean that New Haven, where most local speed limits are currently set at 25 miles per hour, a citywide speed limit that predates the statewide minimum, could drop to as low as 20 miles per hour (or 15 less than the state minimum of 35).
“Of the top 10 cities in New England,” Pinto said in support of the bill, New Haven has “the highest percentage of walkers and pedestrians. We know from studies that reducing speed limits reduce pedestrian fatalities.” And if and when a pedestrian is hit by a car, Pinto said, the resulting injury will be much less severe the slower the speed of the vehicle.
Wethersfield State Rep. Russell Morin said he is concerned that allowing cities to drop their speed limits to 20 miles per hour could result in even slower speed limits in the future, with cars crawling through city streets at impractically slow speeds.
“Doesn’t this lead us to a slippery slope?” he asked.
Pinto disagreed. “We’re not trying to create gridlock,” he said. Instead, “We’re trying to balance increased safety and a road system that actually work.”
Lemar clarified that the new law would not allow cities to drop local speed limits as low as they want. Per the legislation, the lowest a speed limit could go would be 20 miles per hour.
Furthermore, he said, cities could only change local speed limits after the relevant local traffic authority holds a public hearing regarding the proposed speed limit changes.
“We know that 35 is not a safe speed” on many city streets, Lemar said after the hearing. This law, if passed, would empower local transit authorities who know their cities much better than a state regulatory agency does to set more appropriate limits to reduce pedestrian fatalities and minimize pedestrian injuries resulting from car crashes.
After Wednesday’s public hearing, the proposed laws stay with the committee for further revisions and internal discussions. Lemar said that the committee has until March 25 to vote the bills out of committee and pass them along to the full assembly for that body to consider voting them into law.
The 2019 Agenda
|SB 431||In Committee||To reform the property tax system.||Martin Looney|
|SB 788||In Committee||To create more revenue options for municipalities with a large percentage of properties that are exempt from property tax.||Martin Looney, Juan Candelaria, Roland Lemar, Toni Walker, Robyn Porter, Al Paolillo, Michael DiMassa|
|SB 475||In Committee||To increase municipal revenue by raising the sales tax.||Martin Looney|
|SB 454||In Committee||To create a more efficient educational system by consolidating small school districts.||Martin Looney|
|SB 27||In Committee||To reduce prescription drug prices under the Medicaid program.||Martin Looney|
|SB 30||In Committee||To prohibit copayment accumulator programs.||Martin Looney|
|SB 34||In Committee||To prohibit the delivery, issuance for delivery or renewal of short-term health insurance policies in this state that do not provide coverage for essential health benefits.||Martin Looney|
|SB 48||In Committee||To require manufacturers of brand name prescription drugs to provide samples of such drugs to manufacturers of generic prescription drugs.||Martin Looney|
|SB 32||In Committee||To establish a public health insurance option.||Martin Looney|
|SB 1||Committee Approved||To create a paid family and medical leave program.||Martin Looney, Gary Winfield|
|SB 2||Committee Approved||To establish a minimum wage of fifteen dollars per hour in the state.||Martin Looney, Gary Winfield|
|SB 64||Committee Approved||To prohibit an employer from coercing employees into attending or participating in meetings sponsored by the employer concerning the employer's views on political or religious matters||Martin Looney|
|SB 496||In Committee||To provide for the legalization, taxation and regulation of the retail sale, personal growth and recreational use of cannabis by individuals twenty-one years of age or older.||Martin Looney, Gary Winfield|
|SB 25||In Committee||To restore the electoral privileges of convicted felons who are on parole.||Martin Looney|
|HB 6073||In Committee||To allow a housing authority to expand its area of operation to include high and very high opportunity census tracts within a thirty-mile radius.||Roland Lemar|
|HB 5273||In Committee||To establish as of right multifamily housing zones within one-half mile of all fixed route transit stops.||Roland Lemar|
|HB 5722||In Committee||To establish a public health insurance option.||Roland Lemar, Pat Dillon, Josh Elliott|
|HB 5595||In Committee||To authorize and regulate the sale and adult use of marijuana in this state.||Juan Candelaria, Roland Lemar, Toni Walker, Robyn Porter, Pat Dillon, Josh Elliott|
|HB 6705||In Committee||To prohibit the Department of Correction from using solitary confinement in its facilities.||Gary Winfield, Juan Candelaria, Roland Lemar, Toni Walker, Robyn Porter, Josh Elliott|
|HB 6715||In Committee||To eliminate cash bail.||Robyn Porter, Josh Elliott|
|HB 7203||In Committee||To promote the safety of pedestrians by requiring motorists to grant the right-of-way to pedestrians who affirmatively indicate their intention to cross the road in a crosswalk.||Cristin McCarthy Vahey|
|HB 6590||In Committee||To allow local traffic authorities to establish lower speed limits on streets under their jurisdiction by holding a public hearing regarding such speed limits and providing notification of such speed limits to the Office of the State Traffic Administration.||Julio Concepcion|
|HB 7141||In Committee||To define and regulate the use of electric foot scooters.||Roland Lemar|
|HB 7205||In Committee||To require a percentage of the cars, light duty trucks and buses purchased or leased by the state be zero-emission vehicles or zero-emission buses, establish a Connecticut Hydrogen and Electric Automobile Purchase Rebate Program and fund such program.||Roland Lemar|
|SB 969||Committee Approved||To provide basic labor standards for transportation network company drivers.||Matt Lesser, Peter Tercyak|