State police crack down on careless, drunk driving

MIDDLEBURY — Vermont State Police are stepping up their traffic patrols in Addison County and beyond in wake of some recent fatal car crashes, including one on Route 22A in Bridport on Aug. 7 that claimed the lives of four people.
Lt. Jeffrey Danoski, commander of the VSP’s New Haven barracks, said the Aug. 7 crash remains under investigation. The four victims — all out-of-staters headed for jobs at Addison County Fair and Field Days — were traveling in a Volkswagen Beetle that crossed the center line of Route 22A and collided with an oncoming pickup truck.
All four people in the Beetle were unbuckled.
Both of the people in the pickup truck were buckled and survived the crash.
Danoski is concerned with some of the driving infractions his troopers are seeing in the field. Drivers aren’t maintaining the recommended three or four seconds of stop-distance time between the vehicle in front of them. Some people are driving substantially above the 50 mph limit on Route 7. He’s received reports of people texting, reading, applying makeup and even shaving while driving.
“Distracted driving is a huge contributing factor in fatal accidents,” he said. “It’s noted as a contributing factor in an average of seven fatal crashes per year.”
This past Saturday, Aug. 12, troopers on duty in Addison County made a particular effort to flag people who were driving while using hand-held devices. They stopped eight distracted drivers.
“We live in a world where we use these devices every day,” Danoski said. “People have to put them down when they’re driving. If you take your eyes off the road even for just a few seconds, you don’t know what could happen.”
He added enforcement can only go so far in getting people to correct bad driving habits.
“We need to police ourselves,” he said. “It’s not always about enforcement. It’s about educating the driving public.”
People traveling Addison County roads during the past few weeks have probably seen firsthand the uptick in VSP traffic enforcement patrols. Troopers in Addison County have run what VSP referred to as “saturation patrols” in several key traffic arteries and in several local towns over this period. On Aug. 10, for example, troopers specifically canvassed rural roads in Bridport and Lincoln, as well as Routes 7 and 22A. Among other things, troopers sought to crack down of drivers who were speeding, texting, using their cell phone while driving, drunken driving, aggressive driving, and/or not wearing seatbelts. Police encountered 22 offenders and issued “numerous motor vehicle violations” during the Aug. 10 day shift.
Troopers also stepped up patrols in the past week in other towns and with other law enforcement agencies (see box for details).
The recent fatal crashes provide grim emphasis to dangerous driving statistics have been going in the wrong direction for several years now, state officials said.
According to figures provided by the Vermont Department of Public Safety (DPS):
•  As of Aug. 7, a combined total of 39 people had perished in 34 fatal crashes statewide this year. That compares to 38 fatalities last year as of Aug. 7; and 28 dead and 26 killed in crashes as of Aug. 7 in 2015 and 2014, respectively.
•  Sixteen of the drivers killed in this year’s fatal accidents were suspected to have been driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs or both.
“Some people don’t realize that (some) medications, even though they are legally prescribed, can affect their ability — both physically and cognitively — to drive a motor vehicle,” Danoski said.
•  Fifty-seven percent of the 39 people killed on the state’s roads so far this year were not wearing seatbelts.
“Unbelted occupants are 30 times more likely to be ejected during a crash, and when we think about it, buckling up is the easiest and most important thing you can do when you get inside your vehicle,” Danoski said. “It should be like an auto-reflex.”
•  The DPS is placing seat belt use statewide at around 84.5 percent so far this year. That’s up from 80 percent last year, but down from 86 percent in 2015.
•  Cannabis (marijuana) was detected in the blood of 18 of the total 59 people killed on the state’s highways during calendar year 2016. DPS officials have increasingly raised concerns about motorists driving under the influence of THC — the chemical in marijuana that produces a high — as Vermont continues to consider legislation that would legalize possession of small quantities of marijuana.
“There has been an increase in driving under the influence of drugs in Addison County since I’ve been here,” said Danoski, who took over his post late last fall. “The most common (drug) has been marijuana.”
State police are becoming more involved in efforts to discourage Vermonters from becoming addicted to drugs and using them before they get behind the wheel, according to Danoski.
Troopers form the New Haven barracks have become involved in the Heroin Education Learning Program (HELP), spearheaded by the United Way of Addison County. It’s a voluntary, eight-week program through which area high school students are learning about the dangers of heroin addiction from local counselors, emergency responders, health care professionals and people with first-hand experience with drug abuse and recovery.
“It’s allowed us to expand the (public outreach) we have been doing,” said Danoski, who has made one of his troopers available to speak during various health classes at area schools.
Troopers have also been reaching out through occasional “public safety days” at schools, where they reinforce the dangers of distracted driving and DUI. Mount Abraham Union High School, for example, has for many years been hosting a re-enactment of a traffic accident scene — complete with emergency responders tending to students with simulated injuries — to give teens a vivid lesson in driver safety. Vergennes Union High School has also staged mock crashes.
The New Haven barracks has acquired a set of “DUI goggles” that gives the wearer a sense of how alcohol impairs vision and other senses. State police recently secured another set of goggles that simulates driving under the influence of drugs.
Danoski said his troops will remain tenacious about enforcing traffic laws. It’s not something that’s going to subside when the recent fatal crashes become a distant memory.
In addition, his troopers will be out making sure drivers follow traffic laws related to school buses and student pedestrians.
“School is starting soon,” he noted.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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