In 2019, the latest year for which full data is available, car crashes in New Jersey resulted in more than 550 deaths. Over the past 10 years, nearly 5,800 people have been killed in crashes on Jersey roadways.

While those numbers are chilling, they are not as drastic as those from other states. But Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a national alliance of numerous groups outside the auto industry, thinks the Garden State can be doing more to protect drivers and passengers.

The collective's 2021 Roadmap of State Highway Safety Laws, its 18th annual report, places New Jersey in its "yellow" category, meaning the state "needs improvement because of gaps in Advocates' recommended optimal laws."

Only eight states and the District of Columbia meet Advocates' standard and are in the "green" grouping. New Jersey joins 29 other states in the yellow bracket, with 12 states in the red category.

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At the federal level, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety President Cathy Chase said modern vehicle safety technologies such as automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning and blind spot detection need to become standard.

"We call on the new Congress, and the incoming administration, to prioritize advancing these systems as required equipment on all new vehicles with a minimum performance standard," Chase said.

Regarding New Jersey specifically, the report requests that the state adopt a primary enforcement rear seat belt law, and both supervised driving requirements and stronger nighttime restrictions for graduated driver license holders.

All of those are important, said Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti, D-Hudson, who participated in Monday's unveiling of the Advocates report, but a continued focus on cutting down on distracted driving is crucial.

NJ.com cited a State Police analysis of the 524 fatal crashes that occurred in 2019 in New Jersey, in reporting that distracted driving was the No. 1 cause of those crashes for the ninth year in a row.

Chiaravalloti said despite fewer people on the roads at least at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, distracted driving rates have not gone down.

"Over the past nine months, I cannot begin to tell you the number of times I have witnessed someone with their camera on while participating in one of the countless Zoom calls," he said. "I have literally heard, and seen, drivers streaming movies, or sports highlights, while operating their vehicle. Is it really that important? Can you not wait until you get home?"

The assemblyman is sponsoring legislation that would expand distracted driving violations to specifically include viewing live streams and other video content.

"I was motivated to introduce this bill after a contracted driver for High Point Regional High School in Wantage was caught having a conversation via video chat while driving a minivan with a student on board," Chiaravalloti said.

In that particular instance, he said, no one was hurt, but drivers and passengers can't always count on being that lucky.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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