Traffic fatalities in New Jersey jumped by the second-biggest rate in the last half-century in 2016, reaching their highest level in five years, according to preliminary New Jersey State Police statistics.

There were 607 traffic-related deaths last year, the most since 627 in 2011. The 8 percent annual increase, compared with 562 deaths in 2015, was the second-largest in the last 48 years of records.

The number of traffic deaths in New Jersey has now risen in three consecutive years. That’s the first time that has happened in at least a half-century; the records kept at the New Jersey State Library go back only as far as 1968.

Source: New Jersey State Police reports

Distracted driving is having an increasing impact on safety, said Cathleen Lewis, AAA New Jersey’s director of public affairs and government relations. It’s gone beyond fast-food meals and phone calls to cognitive distractions such as interacting with smartphone apps connected with the cars themselves.

“It is about having a lot of those apps within your car, and it gives people the false sense that it means they’re safe and that you can utilize this technology, you can multitask behind the wheel,” Lewis said.

“At the end of the day, the number one task you have when you are behind the wheel is to get from Point A to B safely and to put all of your attention on the road,” she said. “People have been led to believe that putting these apps in their cars makes it safer. Making it hands-free makes it safer. It doesn’t, and we’ve started to see the consequences of that on our roadways.”

Lewis said voice-to-text technology in apps has improved but is not at a point where it is lessening drivers’ cognitive load.

“Just because you’re not holding onto it, just because you’re not typing on it doesn’t mean that it’s safer. It just means that you’re not taking your eyes off the road. But you are taking your mind off the road,” Lewis said.

The increase appears to be in line with national trends. Through the first half of 2016, traffic fatalities were up by 9 percent across the United States.

And the numbers remain far below historical levels. The number of traffic deaths in New Jersey exceeded 700 every year before 2008 and almost always surpassed 1,000 before 1988.

“Over the years, what we’ve generally seen is that technology in vehicles has made us safer, and our laws and our roadways have made us safer,” Lewis said. “A lot of that has to do with some of the very first traffic safety pieces we had – seat belts, airbags. All of those things made it easier to survive a crash, which started to bring fatality levels down.

“Traffic laws – banning things like hand-held cell phones, requiring people to wear seatbelts, cracking down on drunk driving. All of those things helped to make people safer on the road,” Lewis said.

Source: New Jersey State Police reports

“What we’re seeing today is driver behavior that is dangerous when it comes to utilizing all of these apps in your phone in your car, and we’re seeing the vehicles themselves making it easier for people to do that,” Lewis said. “It has been in the past that technology has made our cars safer, and this the first time that we’re really seeing that technology is enabling dangerous behavior behind the wheel.”

Traffic fatalities last year ranged from 50 in Burlington County to 11 in Hunterdon County. Other counties with at least 40 traffic-related deaths were Atlantic, Essex, Middlesex, Monmouth and Ocean.

Last year’s traffic fatalities included 333 drivers, 89 passengers, 167 pedestrians and 18 bicyclists.

Lewis said people can help reduce fatalities by turning off technology while they’re driving.

“You shouldn’t be looking up movie times while you’re driving. You shouldn’t be making dinner reservations while you’re driving. You should be looking at directions, and you should be looking at the road. And when you’re looking at directions, you should be doing it in a way that keeps your eyes and your mind on the road,” Lewis said.

Even some maps apps can increase danger by asking drivers for instant feedback on road conditions, said Lewis.

“If you are driving down the roadway, you shouldn’t be utilizing those pieces of the app to let people know that there’s a crash or that there’s some change or that there’s a police car on the side of the road,” Lewis said. “Those apps have a great value to motorists because it helps alleviate some of the traffic jams, but if you’re doing it while you’re driving, that can be very dangerous.”

Preliminary data for the start of 2017 shows there have been at least seven deaths in January's first four days, including a New Year’s Day crash that killed a driver in Carneys Point in Salem County and another that killed a pedestrian in Newark.

(An earlier version of this story said there hadn't been a New Year's Day traffic death for the first time since 2010. The Jan. 1 crashes were made public on the Wednesday and Thursday updates to the State Police website.)


New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.


Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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