Halfway through the year, and in the midst of what highway safety officials call the "100 deadliest days," the number ofis up about 6 percent compared to the same time last year, according to statistics from the New Jersey State Police.
There have been 278 fatal accidents resulting in 295 deaths through July 13, compared to 262 crashes with 279 fatalities at the same time last year and 264 accidents with 284 deaths in 2014.
An increase in miles driven is likely responsible for the uptick in fatalities, said Jim Lardear, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "Cheaper gas, more driving likely stalled the downward trend created by increasing seat belt usage and car safety technology like ABS (anti-lock brakes), air bags and stability controls," he said.
According to Lardear, 2015 saw the biggest rise in motor vehicle deaths nationally in the last half-century. In New Jersey, there was one less crash in 2015 than in 2014, but six more deaths.
Nationally, the number of vehicle miles traveled in April 2016 was 2.6 percent higher than in April 2015. Drivers logged more than 1 trillion miles in the first four months of this year, the most since thebegan keeping records in 1991. Almost were traveled in New Jersey in 2014, the most recent year for which data was available. That was up about one-half percent over the prior year.
Using vehicle miles traveled each day to calculate fatality rates for New Jersey counties shows that the southernmost rural counties had the most fatal accidents in 2015. The largest number was in Cumberland, which had 7.9 fatalities per 1 million daily vehicle miles traveled. The lowest rate -- 1.4 fatalities -- was in Bergen County.
Lardear said that's not unexpected. Rural states, including Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, had a much greater increase in fatalities from 2014 to 2015 than did the more congested mid-Atlantic states of New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania: 20 percent for the rural states compared with 4 percent for the more urban states.
"Rural areas can have a higher number of crashes due to less congestion making room for higher speeds and even roadway departures," said Lardear.
Any increase in fatalities is "a cause for concern," he said, particularly as New Jersey is still in the midst of the summer period, when the number of fatal accidents increase as more drivers, and particularly young motorists, are on the road.
"Summer months – especially for teens -- are known as the '100 deadliest days’ because of the rise in fatal crashes involving teen drivers," Lardear said.
Sue Madden, a spokeswoman for AAA in New Jersey, said that is especially true at the Jersey Shore. "During the summer, there is just more volume in the Jersey beach towns, both drivers and walkers, so more accidents are likely to occur during the season," she said. "And we can’t say it enough, the cellphones are a huge distraction for people."
"We have seen that recently with the Pokemon Go game," she said. "People are playing while driving along snapping selfies and making for a very dangerous and potentially deadly trip."