The pandemic forced plenty of would-be commuters and would-be vacationers off the roads in 2020, yet New Jersey registered more fatal crashes last year than in 2019.

And right now, 2021 is on pace to top the 2020 fatal-crash and crash-casualty counts.

Figures from the New Jersey State Police, which are still considered preliminary, cite 548 fatal collisions on the road between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 of last year. The 2019 total was 524.

"We have seen a slight increase in 2020 in fixed object crashes, hitting things such as trees," Detective Sgt. 1st Class Michael Townsend, of the New Jersey State Police, told New Jersey 101.5.

About a third of last year's fatal crashes involved a pedestrian, the statistics show. A full report looking deeper into 2020's fatal crashes and deaths will be released later this year.

"There's always going to be driver inattention, there's always going to be unsafe speed, despite the number of vehicles on the roadway," Townsend said.

Last year's fatal crashes in New Jersey claimed 586 lives, according to NJSP's preliminary figures. Most of the state's fatal crashes occurred in Middlesex County.

Fatalities on the roads jumped 7% nationally in 2020, compared to 2019, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A report released by NHTSA in the middle of last year highlighted an increase in speeding, statistics that point to fewer people wearing seat belts, and a high rate of drivers testing positive for drugs or alcohol.

"It looks like some drivers took advantage of lower rates of enforcement and the lower traffic volumes," said Eric Heitmann, director of the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety. "At the end of the day, it's about every driver taking responsibility for the lives and safety of everyone else on the roads."

Distracted driving is the number-one cause of traffic fatalities in New Jersey. A campaign launched by the Division this spring focused specifically on distracted driving.

The Division in February announced plans to spend $15 million in 2021 on programs and initiatives to enhance traffic safety and improve driver behaviors.

"Our goal is zero fatalities; that's the only acceptable number of fatalities on our roads," Heitmann said.

As of mid-July of this year, the number of fatal crashes and related fatalities in New Jersey was ahead of the same time last year.

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

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