State Police: NJ fatal accidents increased in 2011

| 15 Feb 2012 | 11:20

    TRENTON — State Police and highway traffic safety officials hope to have answers in about three weeks to explain why 82 more people in the state died in traffic accidents last year than in 2010, breaking a five-year run of decreasing fatalities. The number of people killed in fatal accidents spiked in 2011, during which 638 people were killed in 596 accidents, a jump from 2010, when 556 people died on the roads in 530 crashes, according to State Police statistics. "We hope in the next two to three weeks that we'll have an idea why they occurred," said Gary Poedubicky, acting director of the state Division of Highway Safety. "We don't have enough information to identify the trends now. The State Police are working on it now." One possibility is there may have been an increase in alcohol-related crashes, Poedubicky said. "It seems there may be an uptick there," he said. The basic numbers came from the State Police website, which includes county-by-county information and was compared against 2010 numbers in the State Police fatal crashes analysis. Poedubicky said there were 50 more traffic fatalities during the fourth quarter of 2011 than in the same period of 2010. "It is disappointing and frustrating that the numbers increased," Poedubicky said. State Police officials say they're concerned by the overall jump in traffic deaths after years of decline. "It is the first jump in fatalities, and we view it as troubling," said Sgt. Brian Polite, State Police spokesman, who said the numbers make a stronger case for motorists to take responsibility and drive safely. "We'll do our part to enforce the law, but the police can't get in the car and drive with you," Polite said. "There must be personal responsibility to do what's safe." Of the state's 21 counties, Middlesex had the most fatal accidents last year, with 56 deaths, up from 37 in 2010. Ocean, Burlington and Essex counties tied for the second-deadliest counties, with 52 people killed in each county last year, an increase from 41 deaths in 2010 in Essex and 52 killed in Ocean last year. Burlington spiked from 34 deaths in 2010. There was good news in some counties. Monmouth County had fewer overall fatalities in 2011 than in 2010, with 10 fewer people killed than the 45 who died in traffic accidents in 2010. Of those 35, 9 were killed on the Garden State Parkway. A 16-mile section of the Parkway through southern Monmouth and northern Ocean Counties is the location of a $225 million project to widen and restore shoulders and add width to the travel lanes to improve safety.In Middlesex County, eight people were killed last year while driving on the New Jersey Turnpike and four on the Parkway, statistics said. Four drivers were killed on the Parkway in Ocean County in 2011. Somerset County also saw a drop in total fatalities, from 29 to 19 fatalities, as did Union County, from 29 to 27 fatalities, and Hunterdon, which went from 12 to 10 fatalities between 2010 and 2011, statistics showed. The number of fatalities was unchanged in Morris and Sussex, with 25 deaths in Morris and 11 in Sussex in both years. "Unfortunately, there are drivers engaging in high-risk behaviors - speeding, aggressive driving and alcohol use - these are the common causes of crashes," Poedubicky said. "We need to target those drivers in our enforcement and education initiatives." Statewide, 146 pedestrians were killed, an increase from 141 deaths in 2010. Essex had the distinction of being the deadliest place to cross the street, with 18 deaths in 2011 followed by Ocean, where 16 pedestrians died, and Middlesex, where 13 pedestrians lost their lives. The pedestrian death toll in Ocean doubled from 2010, when 8 people lost their lives. Monmouth and Morris counties had fewer pedestrians deaths in 2011 than in 2010. The Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which conducts its own analysis of fatal accident statistics, said better road design to accommodate all users, whether on foot or behind the wheel - a philosophy known as "complete streets" - will improve safety. "Roadway design is especially important in counties like Essex and Ocean, where pedestrian foot traffic is common along arterial roadways, which lack adequate pedestrian infrastructure," said Janna Chernetz, Tri-State New Jersey advocate. "(Transportation) Commissioner (James) Simpson has been an advocate for complete streets. Now is his moment to put dollars and policies behind his words and address this issue." Simpson said the money has to go where accidents are happening and to the solutions that will prevent them. "We're disturbed by it. We're focused on it, and we're hoping for a better 2012," Simpson said of the statistics. "We work well with Tri-State, but Tri-State thinks throwing money everywhere is a solution. If we had fatal accidents where people were walking in the street, we'd build sidewalks there, but we can't build sidewalks everywhere." Citing observations made while driving around the state, Simpson said he believes speeding and driver inattention are likely causes for some of the accidents. "The big uptick was in vehicle accidents and speed is always a factor," Simpson said. "I kind of think a lot of it is speeding and distraction." Simpson stressed the need for engineering, where road improvement is needed, education of drivers and enforcement. "We will analyze the crash and fatality statistics to identify problem locations, which will help us direct our resources where they will do the most good to protect everyone who shares our roads," he said. "I urge everyone, and I mean drivers, passengers, pedestrians and bicyclists, to do everything they can to help keep themselves and others safe." Pam Fischer, an independent highway safety consultant and former Division of Highway Traffic Safety director, said the spike could be due to a number of factors, from huge storms to budget cutbacks. But she said ultimately drivers have responsibility for their actions. "We had an exceptionally bad weather year. Weather can be a factor, but not a huge factor," Fischer said. "The economists and pundits said we've seen a little (economic) improvement that may have sparked more driving, with more people on the road there is more risk." Fischer said it also could be the effect of budget cuts to police traffic safety units and to safety campaigns. "Federal funding that comes to the highway traffic safety offices were down and the federal government is wrestling with reauthorizing federal transportation funding. That didn't help the situation," she said. That's affected budgeting and the frequency of safety campaigns and messages to motorists, pedestrians and cyclists to remind them about good driving habits and other safe behaviors that can reduce fatalities, she said. "The same level of noise isn't out there. It's not an indictment of the highway traffic safety office. They've had reductions in staff," Fischer said. "The current administration isn't focused on safety. I understand they've had some big fish to fry." But she cautioned that "one year does not a trend make."