Police increase patrols, stress safety after rash of fatal crashes

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Police plan to put more cruisers on the roads after a recent cluster of fatal car crashes throughout Vermont.

Seven people in four car crashes died Sunday and Monday, according to the Vermont State Police.

At a news conference Tuesday state officials urged Vermonters to drive safely. Thomas Anderson, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, said enforcement will be increased.

"We'll do our part," Anderson said. "We will have robust enforcement of the motor vehicle laws that we've got, and we will have increased visibility, starting today."

But, Anderson said, the choices the driving public makes have the strongest effect on fatality rates.

"Ultimately, this is a responsibility of every driver that's out there to drive responsibly, to slow down, don't text, and put your seat belt on," he said.

This cluster of deaths represents well above 10 percent of the annual average over the past decade. It also adds to an upward trend in traffic fatalities that began in 2015, both in Vermont and nationally.

Officials also stressed the importance of using seat belts. Of the seven people who died Sunday and Monday, six were not wearing seat belts, police said.

An additional fatality happened Friday in South Royalton where a passenger died.

The Vermont State Police report for Monday's deadly crash in Bridport shows that all four people who died were not wearing seat belts. Police said the Volkswagen Beetle crossed the centerline and collided head-on with a pickup truck.

In Derby, a man driving a 1984 Toyota station wagon died Monday afternoon after he pulled out in front of a dump truck and got broadsided. The police report said the dump truck had the right of way. Police said the deceased driver was wearing a seat belt.

Early Monday morning, a South Burlington man in a delivery van died when he drove off I-89 near Milton and hit a tree.

Sunday night a man lost control of his SUV on I-91 near Springfield, struck a tree, and rolled the vehicle multiple times.

In both interstate accidents, the driver was not wearing a seat belt.

Anderson said wearing a seat belt decreases the risk of dying in a crash by 50 to 70 percent.

Colchester Police Chief Jennifer Morrison, president of the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police, agreed with the emphasis Anderson placed on drivers' decisions.

"In the long run, this is certainly a law enforcement concern," she said, "but it is really and truly a community responsibility."

Morrison said "conversations need to start around the kitchen table and in the classroom" about the dangers of bad driver behavior.

"We can't enforce our way out of this issue," she said.

Besides not wearing seat belts, Morrison said driving while distracted by technology is one of the biggest threats on the road. Anderson called distractions from using smartphones and other technology "a huge problem."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that the percentage of drivers nationwide visibly using handheld devices increased 267 percent between 2009 and 2015.

Anderson and Morrison addressed whether Vermont should introduce a primary seat belt law, which would make not wearing a seat belt an offense for which drivers could be pulled over.

Morrison said the association of police chiefs doesn't have a "formal position" on such a law, but that members will discuss it soon. She said a balance has to be maintained between respecting civil liberties and keeping people safe.

A primary seat belt law could be "another tool in the toolbox," Anderson said, but he doubts "it's going to be the silver bullet that's all of a sudden going to get people buckling up."

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