During a 72-hour period earlier this month, members of the Taftville Fire Company #2 responded to a spate of rear-end vehicle crashes that sent eight people — including two children — to the hospital.
During those three days, rear-end crashes involved seven vehicles and 14 patients, luckily none who suffered serious injuries, Chief Timothy Jencks said.
"But while we were responding to two of those scenes, there were a number of close-call rear-end accidents when other drivers were looking at the accidents and not paying attention to the vehicles in front of them," he said. "That’s an issue that could potentially have led to injuries to drivers and first responders."
After months of decreasing vehicle crashes attributed to COVID-19 lockdowns, drivers are heading back onto roads and highways with a vengeance, fire and police officials said. And more vehicles inevitably mean more crashes.
"It’s like the first snowstorm of the year when people seem to be learning to drive all over again," Jencks said. "But we’ve seen a gradual increase in those types of crashes over the last 20 years as cell phones and other devices became for popular and available. It’s also things like dashboard GPS systems that can be distracting. I once saw a drive with a portable DVD player on his dash."
While a rear-end crash can sound somewhat innocuous, those types of incidents can lead to serious injuries, just by virtue of the energy involved.
"When you’ve got a car going even just 20-30 mph and it hits a vehicle in front, there’s a lot of kinetic energy continuing forward into the struck vehicle," Jencks said.
And once that crash starts attracting first responders, additional potential hazards develop.
"There’re firefighters and police there, sometimes crossing streets," he said. "Passing drivers need to be focused on what’s going on in front of them and the emergency personnel directing traffic, not checking on the severity of a crash."
According to the National Fire Protection Association, 11,625 firefighters were injured in the United States in 2018 at "non-fire" emergency incidents, like crash scenes.
In Connecticut, motorists are required, if able, to move a lane over from an emergency vehicle, including police cruisers, stopped on a road or highway. If an emergency vehicle, like a fire truck or ambulance flashing lights, approaches from behind, drivers should pull over to the right and stop, if it’s safe to do so.
Plainfield police Capt. Mario Arriaga said drivers are inconsistent with following general highway safety laws, in large part to the same distracting issues Jencks highlighted.
"If a driver has they’re music on loud or is otherwise distracted, they don’t hear a siren until it’s right up behind them," he said. "And then some panic, either stopping completely in the middle of the road or pulling over to the left instead of the right."
In 2017, there were 2,935 "distracted-affected" fatal crashes in the United States precipitated by drivers on cells phones, eating, talking to passengers or distracted by an "outside event," according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Those incidents, which represented 9% of all fatal crashes that year, resulted in 3,166 deaths.
Arriaga said the types of injuries he’s seen at rear-end collisions don’t usually present with external issues, assuming seat belts are worn.
"There’s a lot of force going into the vehicle that gets hit that can cause a person to fly back and then forward," he said. "And there are more and more people getting back behind the wheel lately."