Until New Jersey allows police officers to pull you over when someone in your back seat isn't wearing a seat belt, it will continue to receive just an average grade in an annual report on states' efforts to keep people alive on the roads.

The 2022 Roadmap of State Highway Safety Laws report, released Tuesday by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, ranks New Jersey in the middle of three tiers, based on the number of safety laws implemented in each state.

Just nine U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia, scored enough to land in the top tier in the report, which notes that the nation's roadways have become more perilous and fatal over the past two years.

"Allowing this carnage to occur year after year, when solutions are readily available, is simply unacceptable," said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

The report suggests that the coronavirus pandemic caused increases in dangerous driving and passenger behaviors, such as speeding, impaired driving, and fewer people buckling up.

In 2021, 667 fatal crashes on New Jersey's roads claimed 697 lives, according to New Jersey State Police data, representing the deadliest year in more than a decade. According to fatality estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released in October, motor vehicle crashes killed 20,160 people during the first six months of 2021 — 18.4% higher than the same period in 2020, and the highest number recorded for the first half of a year since 2006.

"What's really important is that we don't lose sight that these facts and figures represent people," Chase said.

New Jersey's grade

New Jersey is one of 31 states to score in the 'yellow' tier of the report's three-tier scorecard, despite having implemented 13 out of 16 "optimal laws" that the group says every state should have as a part of a comprehensive safety program.

The laws are broken into five sections: occupant protection, child passenger safety, novice teen and young adult drivers, impaired driving, and distracted driving.

In the report, no state is eligible for a 'green' rating if it doesn't have a primary enforcement seat belt law covering passengers in the front and back of the vehicle. New Jersey requires that all passengers use seat belts, but an unbuckled passenger in the back seat can't be the primary reason a cop pulls you over.

New Jersey also falls short in the 'young driver' section, according to the report, for not mandating that teens spend 50 hours behind the wheel, including several hours at nighttime, in order to obtain a license.

New Jersey earned credit for having a number of laws that other states do not, including mandatory ignition interlocks for individuals convicted of drunk driving, a helmet requirement for all motorcycle riders, and a requirement that all kids remain rear-facing through age 2.

"With no state achieving a 'perfect score' of enactment of all 16 and with overwhelming public sentiment that not enough is being done to reduce dangerous driving behavior, every state legislator should be motivated and energized to make positive, lifesaving changes this year," Chase said.

In a poll conducted for the report, two-thirds of respondents said not enough is being done to address dangerous driveway behaviors. Nearly 75% of respondents were not aware of the drastic jump in traffic fatalities registered in 2021.

"We are sending the roadmap report to every governor and the mayor of D.C. as a call to action for the 2022 legislative session," Chase said.

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