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Vermont State Police Sgt. Jay Riggen speaks about driver safety over the Labor Day weekend during a press conference Wednesday in Berlin. The Vermont State Police, the Department of Motor Vehicles, local and county law enforcement agencies will be visible this holiday to detect and deter aggressive, distracted and impaired driving.

BERLIN — Fatal crashes are on pace to hit a five-year high in Vermont and a former member of the Vermont State Police and current law enforcement liaison with the Agency of Transportation believes the novel coronavirus pandemic is partly to blame.

State and local law enforcement held a media briefing Wednesday at the state Agency of Transportation offices in Berlin. The briefing was to help get the word out about safe driving with Labor Day weekend days away and schools set to reopen.

So far, there have been 43 deaths as a result of crashes in the state. Anthony Facos, former police chief in Montpelier and current head of enforcement at the state Department of Motor Vehicles, said at this time last year there were only 21 deaths.

“We all stand here together asking for the public’s help to do the right thing. If you’re drinking, don’t drive. We want to make sure our roads are as safe as possible,” Facos said.

Of the 43 deaths, 26 of them took place in June and July alone and at least a third of those deaths were attributed to crashes resulting from an impaired driver, according to State Police. There were 47 people killed in crashes in all of 2019, which was a 5-year low.

Bill Jenkins, who has retired from State Police and now works out of the state Highway Safety Office as a law enforcement liaison, said he can’t really explain why this year there are so many fatal crashes just as law enforcement couldn’t explain why there were so few last year. Jenkins said those in law enforcement wanted to see if the decrease in deaths was going to be a trend and what they were doing to prevent those deaths was working.

“Unfortunately, the opposite has happened,” he said.

While there is no one reason to point to for the uptick in fatal crashes and random chance is involved, Jenkins said he believed the pandemic was part of the equation. He said since the pandemic started, there have been fewer police out on the roads patrolling.

“When you drive around, people seem to be speeding more. They seem to be looking at their phones more. They do not see law enforcement out as much as they used to. I think some people, unfortunately, got the message that they could do things that they shouldn’t be doing,” he said.

He said the large number of deaths as consequence of crashes in June and July was the state opening back up and people getting back out on the roads with less law enforcement around.

“Things were really shut down and quiet in March and April. May was kind of a transition. … July was the worst month we’ve had since 2008 with 15 fatalities,” he said.

Jenkins said that’s why law enforcement are trying to get the word out about impaired and distracted driving and are letting the public know they will be out in force over the holiday weekend.

Jenkins also wanted to remind the public that schools will be opening next week after shutting down in March on account of the pandemic. He wanted drivers to be aware of school buses that will be back on the roads making frequent stops.

“And also due to COVID-19, the scheduling may be a bit different than normal. So you may be seeing school buses at different times during the day than the traditional morning and afternoon. Patience is going to be needed because there could also be further delays because some schools are going to be doing temperature checks before the children get on the school bus,” he said.

Jenkins said there is no reason for anyone to pass a school bus that has its red lights flashing and anyone caught doing so faces a fine and points on their license.

eric.blaisdell @timesargus.com

(1) comment

William R Walsh

How many fewer drivers were on the roads in the past six months? What are the chances a driver will get caught while impaired by alcohol, talking on their phones, texting. etc.? People have figured that out. The stresses of the pandemic is a whole other matter. It will be interesting to see what other states are going through.

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