NEW JERSEY – As preliminary data shows fatal crashes and collisions in New Jersey increased by more than five percent in 2020 despite fewer cars on the road amid COVID-19 restrictions, Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal is focusing on new initiatives led by the Division of Highway Traffic Safety (“HTS”) to address what are the leading causes of crashes nationwide – distracted driving and other risky behaviors.
HTS’s actions follow a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”), which studied the causes of nationwide upticks in fatal crashes during the COVID-19 pandemic and found that fewer Americans drove, but those who did took more risks and were involved in a higher number of fatal crashes.
“That risky driving increases the likelihood of accident and injury is not news,” Grewal said. “But what we’re learning from the 2020 data is extremely concerning: even with less cars on the road due to the COVID-19 pandemic, irresponsible drivers caused more fatal accidents last year. That’s why in 2021 we’re focused on changing driver behavior to make the roads safer for everyone.”
In response to the 2020 crash statistics, HTS will launch a #SafeDriversSaveLives social media campaign to raise public awareness of the integral role each driver plays in preventing the loss of lives on New Jersey’s roadways. HTS will also use new web-based crash analysis technology to implement data-driven strategies targeting communities most in need of education, enforcement, and public outreach programs, and will also launch a statewide multimedia campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of distracted driving.
“We’re working on some very exciting initiatives and programs aimed at improving driver behaviors through education and public awareness,” said Eric Heitmann, Director of the Division of Highway Traffic Safety. “The 2020 crash data indicates that now, more than ever, we need every driver working with us to keep New Jersey’s roadways safe.”
Preliminary data from the New Jersey State Police (“NJSP”) shows that there were 552 fatal crashes on New Jersey roads in 2020, up from 524 the prior year. The uptick came at a time when traffic volumes were down in the State as a result COVID-19-related stay-at-home orders, curfews, and widespread transition to work-from-home.
It’s a scenario that mirrors a nationwide trend.
Data released by NHTSA in October 2020 showed a 30% rise in fatality rates nationwide from January through June of 2020 even though there was a decrease in the number of cars on the road for at least three of those months.
While NJSP and HTS are still compiling and analyzing underlying 2020 fatal crash data to better understand the reason for the rise in traffic fatalities in this state, NHTSA has suggested that driver behavior is to blame for the increase nationwide.
Reviewing nationwide fatal crashes in the first half of 2020, NHTSA found that driving patterns and behaviors changed significantly; drivers who remained on the roads engaged in more risky behavior, including speeding, failing to wear seat belts, and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
According to NHTSA:
- One report showed a median 22% increase in speeds in select metropolitan areas.
- Sixty-five percent of drivers in trauma centers after a serious crash tested positive for drugs or alcohol.
- In April, double the average number of people were thrown from vehicles during crashes, indicating no seat belts.
This year, HTS will spend more than $15 million on programs and initiatives to enhance traffic safety and improve driver behaviors, including law enforcement training, public outreach and educational materials, and grant funding for statewide mobilizations to enforce laws on impaired driving, distracted driving, and seatbelt usage.
In a separate campaign to be launched this spring, HTS will address the issue of distracted driving, which is the number one cause of traffic fatalities in the State.
The initiative is HTS’s latest effort to target key audiences in promoting traffic safety.
Last year, HTS focused on promoting safety among its youngest drivers through a “Stick to It” public awareness campaign to educate parents and young drivers about New Jersey’s nationally acclaimed teen driver laws.
The campaign commemorated milestone anniversaries “Kyleigh’s Law”, which requires teens to affix stickers to their vehicles to identify them as novice drivers, and the 20-year anniversary of New Jersey’s Graduated Driver License (“GDL”) program, a three-tiered licensing process considered one of the most progressive and stringent teen driver measures in the United States.
The laws are widely credited with helping to reduce fatal crashes among teen drivers. According to data from NJSP, crash fatalities involving a teen driver (age 16 to 20) decreased by more than 47 percent between 2008 and 2018, dropping from 101 to 53. During that same period, the number of passengers under the age of 20 killed while riding in a car driven by a teen plummeted nearly 60 percent from 19 to 8.