The number of fatal car crashes in New Jersey rose by more than 10 percent in 2016 over the previous year, with safety officials still trying to determine the cause of the big increase.
According to preliminary data the New Jersey State Police released this week, 607 people died in 576 accidents during 2016. In 2015, 522 accidents claimed 562 lives. The number of fatalities had been rising slowly since sinking to a 20-year low of 542 in 2013. But the 8 percent increase in deaths from 2015 to 2016 was the biggest jump yet. In general, traffic-related fatalities had been on a downward trend from 1996, when 809 people were killed, through 2013.
Pam Fischer, who has worked in traffic safety for decades and now serves as a consultant, said the improving economy is at least partially to blame for the increase.
“The economy is definitely impacting the crash numbers,” Fischer said. “As the economy improves, more people drive and that ups the exposure rate. Add distraction to the mix, and it’s problematic.”
There is an increase in all kinds of accidents, including fatalities, when more people are on the road. Holiday periods also tend to have more fatalities because of increased traffic, although the two deadliest days of 2016 were non-holiday Saturdays — May 14 and November 12. Last year saw gas prices at their lowest levels since the late 2000s, which also likely contributed to increased motor vehicle volume, although that data is not yet available.
The total number of vehicle miles traveled in New Jersey did rise by nearly 1 percent between 2014 and 2015, when the state Department of Transportation estimated that vehicles traveled nearly 207 million miles a day. That number has also been rising, although it remains below the pre-recession high of 208.4 million in 2007.
Distracted driving has become a common cause of accidents, because so many people are using cellphones while driving or eating, changing stations on car radios, putting on makeup, or engaging in other activities that take attention off the road.
“People are multi-tasking behind the wheel,” said State Police Trooper Lawrence Peele. “It’s more than just cellphones.”
Peele said increased police patrols during the holidays and other busy travel times, and campaigns encouraging seat belt use and discouraging distracted or aggressive driving and driving under the influence, have all worked to bring the state’s fatality statistics to low levels.
“We are usually very successful at that — it just happens that the numbers were up,” Peele said. “The whole reason we compile these numbers is so we can revisit them and see if there is an area we can focus on … and adjust our patrol techniques accordingly.”
The state Division of Highway Traffic Safety is also in the process of studying the 2016 data but has some guesses about the causes of the increase in deaths. Gary Poedubicky, the division’s acting director, said his office “is still crunching the numbers,” but thinks that “excessive speed, lack of seat-belt use, or distractions such as cellphone use will be the likely causes of the increase.”
Burlington County had the most fatalities, 50 in 49 accidents, which was one more death than in Monmouth County. Monmouth has the largest roadway network — 3,521 miles — while Burlington County is fourth, with 2,897. Middlesex County, which had the greatest number of vehicle miles traveled daily, nearly 22 million, ranked third for the number of fatalities in the state with 48.
Equalizing for road miles and miles traveled, Hudson County saw the most people killed per 100 miles of roadway, 4.1, but Cumberland County had the largest number of fatalities per 1 million vehicle miles traveled daily, 9.6.
The number of people killed nearly doubled from 2015 to 2016 in Warren County, where 15 people died in 13 crashes last year. That figure more than doubled from the statewide low in 2013 to 2016 in both Cape May and Sussex counties. Fewer people died due to traffic accidents last year than in 2013 in seven counties with Mercer County seeing the greatest drop — almost 42 percent to 21 deaths in 2016. Only five counties — Hudson, Morris, Passaic, Somerset, and Union — had fewer fatalities last year than in the prior year.
Newark, the state’s largest city, had 28 traffic fatalities, the most of any municipality, with deadly crashes on Interstates 78 and 280, the New Jersey Turnpike, Route 21, and local roads.
Statewide, more drivers were killed in crashes last year than in either of the previous two years; the 333 motorists who died on the roads in 2016 represented a 20 percent increase over 2015. There was one additional bicyclist killed, for a total of 18. The 607 fatalities also included 166 pedestrians, a 4 percent drop, and 90 vehicle passengers, down 6 percent from 2015.
The greatest proportion of those killed, or about 22 percent, were age 50-64. Just six of the drivers killed were under age 18, while 64 —or nearly two of every 10 — were senior citizens age 65 or older.
So far, 2017 is proving to be deadly, as well. As of Thursday, there had already been seven fatal crashes resulting in an equal number of deaths this year. Still, that’s less than the 10 fatalities in the first four days of 2016.