Over a 48-hour period beginning this past weekend, eight people died in traffic accidents in various parts of the state. Vermont has rarely witnessed this many highway deaths in such a short period of time.
Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Anderson told reporters at a press conference Tuesday that, effective immediately, state and local police will have a greater presence on the road to encourage people to drive safely.
"We're talking with the state police, our law enforcement partners across the state, to increase visibility out on the roadways of both local and state police officers,” Anderson said. “But again, that will have an effect but it's probably a short-term effect, and really what we are trying to do is change people's driving behavior."
Jennifer Morrison, the police chief in Colchester and the president of the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police, says the bottom line is that people's driving habits have to change in order to reduce fatalities.
"We need your help,” said Morrison. “High visibility and robust enforcement will be trumped every time by lack of personal responsibility and risk-taking."
Anderson says the biggest safety measure is for all drivers and passengers to wear seat belts. He says this was not the case in seven of the eight fatalities that recently occurred.
"That is the single most important thing a person can do to ensure their safety in a car," said Anderson. "You're 50 to 70 percent more likely to survive a crash if you put your seat belt on."
Vermont doesn't have a primary enforcement seat belt law, but rather it has what is known as a secondary law. This means a driver must be pulled over for a different violation in order to receive a ticket for failing to wear a seat belt.
Anderson says he's not prepared at this time to endorse any legislative effort to pass a primary enforcement law.
"That's not going to be the be all and the end all to change driver behavior,” said Anderson. “It's going to be the decision for each driver in Vermont that gets into a car to say, 'Hey, I'm going to buckle up because I know that's going to make me safer — I should want to do that, not because somebody's telling me I have to do that.'"
In a recent study, Vermont was listed as the state that has the greatest percentage of drivers who still use hand-held cellphones and other electronic devices even though it's against the law. Anderson says he's concerned by this growing trend.
"I think it's a huge problem and it's probably a growing problem and I think it's a hard thing to measure how many people are out there on their cellphone or some other hand-held device that are distracting their driving,” said Anderson. "I think it's a bigger problem than we probably have been able to measure."
Morrison also thinks all of the new electronic technology and touch screens in cars is a problem for highway safety.
"The technology that comes with the car is distracting,” said Morrison. ”Then you layer on that any device they bring into the car and it becomes an environment where the primary task or the primary focus is no longer on taking your vehicle from point A to point B and delivering everyone safely."
Law enforcement officials say they're also concerned that a growing number of Vermonters are driving at excessive speeds on both the interstate and local roads and they're asking these drivers to slow down.