By Briana Vannozzi
Makeshift memorials like one along Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City are dotting more of New Jersey’s roads. That’s because the number of fatalities caused by car crashes increased by 8 percent in 2016, the biggest jump in more than five years.
“We’ve seen a spike for the first time in a while, for crashes. Nationally that is the trend so the unfortunate thing is, is that we are not far behind,” said Cathleen Lewis, director of public affairs and government relations for AAA Northeast.
In a preliminary report issued by New Jersey State Police, 605 people were killed in 573 accidents during 2016. In 2015, there were 562 deaths caused by 522 crashes. State Police say New Jersey had been on a downward trend until just recently. In fact, New Jersey hit a 20-year low in 2013 with 542 deaths.
A spokesperson for New Jersey’s Division of Highway Safety says the agency is still crunching the numbers and investigating factors, but says it “leads us to believe excessive speed, lack of seat belt use or distractions such as cell phone use will be the likely causes of the increase.”
“For your average driver, I think that the message is, you have to put the distractions away. Just because it’s in your dashboard doesn’t mean it’s safe,” Lewis said.
Lewis says cognitive distractions caused by technology — either in your phone or car — tends to be the leading culprit.
“People have really this false sense that because we started to put technology into their vehicles, because now I don’t need to use my phone to text, I don’t need to use my phone to get directions, it’s in my car, that it’s somehow safer,” she said.
In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently issued guidelines “…calling on electronic manufacturers like Apple and Samsung to design future operating systems that limit the functionality and simplify interfaces while a vehicle is in motion and to develop technology to identify when the devices are being used by a driver while driving.”
Fatalities are up even as police increase traffic patrols during busy travel times, discourage driving while distracted or under the influence of drugs and alcohol and encourage more seat belt use.
“We really need to get back to the basics when it comes to driving. Our number one priority has to be about safety on the road because it’s not just about your own safety, it’s about the safety of the roads you share,” Lewis said.
Burlington County had the most fatalities, according to the report, with 50 deaths in 49 accidents. Monmouth County had just one less, with 49 deaths.
A separate report from the State Police analyzing crashes from 2015 shows for the sixth year in a row, distracted driving caused more fatal crashes than alcohol. Though there was some improvement. There were 190 distracted driving accidents in 2014 and 168 in 2015.
New Jersey has some of the toughest laws on the books, banning cell phone and technology use. But state agencies say it’ll take time to shift personal attitudes, because the first line of defense ultimately remains with you.