Traffic deaths in N.J. are up this year, despite less cars on the road. Bad behavior is to blame.

Traffic fatalities in New Jersey are higher than they were this time last year and on a deadly trend to finish 2020 with more deaths than last year, despite a drop in traffic earlier in the year, due to the coronavirus.

Safety experts said the death toll in New Jersey reflects what’s happening nationally, that traffic deaths increased in 2020, despite COVID-19 travel restrictions that emptied the roads during the pandemic’s peak.

As of Dec. 13, the state had 556 traffic deaths, which included pedestrians and people on bikes. That is 23 deaths more than 533 fatalities that occurred during the same time period in 2019, according to state police statistics. So far there have been 523 fatal crashes in 2020, compared to 501 collisions by the same date in 2019. These are the most recent figures available as of Monday.

“We really thought we would trend down, (but) that wasn’t the case,” said Pam Fischer, a Governor’s Highway Safety Association senior director. “The message is we have to do better. These crashes are not accidents, because they are preventable.”

Nationally, more fatal crashes occurred despite year-to-date traffic volumes declining by 23 billion less vehicle miles traveled than 2019, as of September 2020, the latest data available from the Federal Highway Administration.

“The increase in fatalities year over year is alarming, especially in a year where we have seen fewer people on our roadways as a result of stay at home orders and an increase of people working from home,” said Tracy Noble, a AAA Midatlantic spokeswoman. “Across the country, we saw that empty roadways led to an increase in speeding, and speed-related crashes. Unfortunately, New Jersey was no exception.”

Initially, the news was good in the spring, that fatal traffic crashes were lower in the state, due to coronavirus travel restrictions and less traffic. But the tip of the death toll iceberg started to show in July when fatalities were higher than they should have been as traffic volumes were still depressed.

Adding to that is traffic has bounced back to almost pre-COVID-19 levels in some places, such as bridges and tunnels between New Jersey and New York as commuters and others shun public transportation for the perceived safety of their cars.

What happened? In two words, bad behavior.

“What we saw was people engaging in risky behavior, high rates of speed, not wearing seat belts and driving impaired,” said Fischer, a former New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic division director. “GHSA saw those trends in April and issued a warning.”

Even State Police Superintendent Col. Patrick Callahan used one of Gov. Phil Murphy’s press briefings in May to report the high-speed pursuit of a driver traveling in excess of 100 mph on I-80, who later turned himself in at the Totowa barracks.

Also alarming is that 50% more people riding bicycles have been killed this year in the state than in 2019. So far, 20 bicycle riders have been killed, compared to 11 last year, state police statistics said. Pedestrian deaths also increased by seven people to 167 killed in 2020 so far.

One study found bicycling trips have increased 26% since the start of the pandemic with more families and children riding for recreation, said Debra Kagan, NJ Bike Walk Coalition executive director. Other people have turned to bikes as an alternative to mass transit, Fischer said.

Both Kagan and Fischer said the surge in bicycling has put more demand on a road network not designed for shared use.

“The events of the past few months have shown the road system needs a major overhaul to make it safe for everyone,” Kagan said. “We need to respond to the current (road) increased use for walking and biking with redesign strategies that keep us all safe.”

“As more people took to walking and cycling as a way to get out the house, those behind the wheel traveled at speeds in excess of the posted limits, making for a tragic combination,” said Noble.

Having better pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure also can prevent fatalities, she said.

A NHTSA emergency room study this year also determined that more people were ejected from vehicles because they weren’t wearing seat belts and admitted to drug or alcohol use, Fischer said.

Adding to that dangerous mixture are the results of a AAA aggressive driving study that determined drivers who have been involved in a crash in the past two years are significantly more likely to have engaged in aggressive driving behaviors.

The study said 53% of drivers who were involved in a crash admitted to driving 10 mph over the speed limit on a residential street, while only 40% of drivers who have not been involved in any crash in the past two years admitted to speeding.

“One third of fatal crashes are due to speeding,” Fischer said. “Speed limits aren’t suggestions.”

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Larry Higgs may be reached at [email protected].

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