In 2017, 64 fatal crashes occurred on Vermont roads resulting in 70 fatalities. That was the highest number of Vermont highway deaths since 2012. So far in 2018, 45 fatal crashes have occurred on Vermont roads causing 52 fatalities. The State still has work to do to improve highway safety.
The continuing challenges that the State faces in this area were highlighted at a day-long conference that I attended in mid-October hosted by the Vermont Highway Safety Alliance. The Alliance has been working since 2012 to minimize the occurrence and severity of highway crashes, related injuries, and fatalities. It seeks to improve highway safety by using crash data to inform the improvement of infrastructure, enforcement, education, and emergency medical services. The Alliance has identified several critical areas for improving highway safety, which are explained in Vermont’s Strategic Highway Safety Plan for 2017-2021. In the past two bienniums, I have worked in the legislature to address three of these areas: increasing the use of occupant protection, reducing impaired driving, and curbing distracted and inattentive driving. I intend to continue my work on these areas in the upcoming biennium.
Over 50% of Vermont traffic fatalities in the last two years involved drivers or passengers who were not wearing seat belts. Earlier this year, the House passed a bill on a 133 to 7 vote to enact a primary seatbelt law. Currently, a driver or passenger can be cited for not wearing a seatbelt only if the driver has been pulled over for another traffic violation. A primary seatbelt law allows law enforcement to conduct a traffic stop if the officer observes a vehicle occupant who is not wearing a seatbelt even if no other violation is apparent. States that have implemented a primary seatbelt law have increased seatbelt usage and reduced fatalities and serious injuries. Unfortunately, the Senate did not pass the bill, so it is an issue that should be taken up again next year.
Over 50% of Vermont traffic fatalities in the last two years involved drivers who were impaired by alcohol, drugs or a combination of the two. In 2016, the legislature passed a law to expand the use of ignition interlock devices (breathalyzers linked to the ignition system of a vehicle) for those charged with driving under the influence (DUI). Such devices can be used to keep an individual from driving a vehicle when the individual’s blood alcohol concentration exceeds the legal limit. The law makes these devices more widely available to those charged with a first DUI offense and mandatory for those charged with a second or subsequent DUI offense. During the upcoming session, the House Judiciary Committee will likely revisit this law to see how it is working and whether additional tweaks to the ignition interlock program are needed.
With the legalization of the possession of small amounts of marijuana in Vermont, the broader legalization of recreational marijuana in neighboring states, and the widespread use of opiates, it is likely that more drivers will be impaired by drugs. Earlier this year, the House passed a law that would have implemented the use of an oral fluid test for detecting the presence of drugs in impaired drivers, thus assisting in the enforcement of the State’s drugged-driving laws. Because the bill was not approved in the Senate, the legislature should revisit the need for a roadside drug test in the coming session.
Distracted driving is also a growing area of concern. In the last biennium, the legislature increased the penalties for drivers who use a handheld portable device. In the coming session, I intend to continue to follow what other states are doing to reduce the toll of distracted driving and will look for opportunities to strengthen our laws in this area.