Forty-six people lost their lives on New Jersey's roads through the first month of 2018.

That's one death more than the same time period last year, and four more than the year prior. It's a potential sign that New Jersey will maintain the unfortunate pattern of a rising annual casualty count.

Reaching a level last seen in 2007, there were 633 traffic fatalities recorded in 2017, according to State Police statistics — the fourth straight year the state's experienced an increase in the number of drivers, passengers, pedestrians and bicyclists killed in crashes.

The 2017 total represented an increase of 71 fatalities compared to 2015 — that's when the Garden State joined dozens of others in adopting the national highway safety strategy known as Toward Zero Deaths, which called for reducing the number of traffic fatalities in half by the year 2030.

The goal, the state said in an August 2015 report, was to cut the number of deaths and serious injuries by 2.5 percent on an annual basis.

Using 2015's death count of 562, going forward the state would have to trim an average of 29 fatalities per year to reach its ambitious 2030 goal.

"It is attainable," Gary Poedubicky, acting director of the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety, told New Jersey 101.5.

Poedubicky said the introduction of self-driving vehicles over the next five to 10 years could play a "significant role" in reducing crashes, injuries and deaths on New Jersey's roads.

"Some reports have indicated that autonomous vehicles can reduce traffic fatalities by up to 90 percent," he said. "The autonomous vehicles will take out the human emotions and the errors."

According to Poedubicky, distracted driving is a major factor fueling the recent uptick in roadway tragedies. He said good safety habits among motorists — such as wearing a seat belt, avoiding distractions, and driving only while sober — can help put a dent in the fatality numbers as well.

The state plans to run a very aggressive distracted-driving campaign in April, Poedubicky said.

"As ambitious and improbable as it may sound, the only acceptable goal should be zero traffic fatalities," he said. "It's going to require time to change behaviors and really create a culture that shows a commitment toward safety."

In a 2018 study from personal finance website WalletHub, New Jersey ranked as the ninth-worst state in which to drive. We ranked dead last for "traffic indiscipline" — poor behavior behind the wheel, such as phone use, speeding, aggressive acceleration, harsh braking and poor turning.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.