Following the deadliest year on New Jersey's roads in close to 15 years, groups are calling on the state to overhaul its approach to improving road safety and reducing roadway fatalities, noting the numbers have been moving in the wrong direction for years.

According to New Jersey State Police data, 661 fatal crashes resulted in 691 lives lost in 2021. The death toll on New Jersey's roads in 2020 was 587, the result of 550 fatal crashes. In 2019, 524 crashes took the lives of 558 drivers, passengers, bikers and pedestrians.

"We know the state is doing stuff on this, but it has clearly not been enough," Sonia Sczcesna, director of active transportation for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, told New Jersey 101.5. "We really need a more aggressive approach to driving down fatalities."

The Campaign, along with other safety advocates, is using the latest figures to renew their call for the Garden State to adopt the traffic safety project known as Vision Zero, which aims to eliminate all traffic deaths by the year 2030.

According to the Vision Zero New Jersey Alliance, which is made up of advocates, crash survivors and decedents' families, the current trend in traffic deaths is "completely unacceptable and preventable."

"We have the tools to change this, we need to make 2022 the year we take bold action to reach the achievable goal of zero deaths in our state," said Debra Kegan, executive director of the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition.

Safety must become before volume as the priority on New Jersey's roads, the Alliance says, and safe infrastructure should be created in all neighborhoods for all users.

"Slower speeds are a crucial component to this," Sczcesna added.

Sczcesna said its a given that people are going to make mistakes behind the wheel, but roads should be designed so that if a person does make a mistake, it doesn't have to result in a fatality or horrendous injury.

New Jersey likely isn't alone in recording a rise in the number of traffic deaths in 2021. According to fatality estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released in October, motor vehicle crashes killed 20,160 people during the first six months of 2021. That's 18.4% higher than the same period in 2020, and the highest number recorded for the first half of a year since 2006.

NJ's current approach

The number of roadway fatalities in New Jersey fell significantly from 2007 (724) to 2008 (590). The death toll jumped to 627 in 2011, then fell to 542 in 2013 before beginning a four-year climb.

When contacted by New Jersey 101.5 for a response to the latest Vision Zero campaign by advocates, the Governor's Office said that Gov. Phil Murphy continues to support the state's "multi-faceted and data-driven accident reduction strategies" that are currently in place.

"Our administration is continually evaluating and improving upon these strategies and will make changes if found to be necessary," spokesman Michael Zhadanovsky said.

Among those strategies is a report that's developed every five years by the New Jersey Department of Transportation  — the Strategic Highway Safety Plan, last completed in August 2020, lays out an approach for the next five years to reduce fatalities and serious injuries on New Jersey's public roads.

"Zero deaths and zero serious injuries on all of New Jersey’s public roads is our collective goal and can be achieved. We are committed to implementing the safety strategies outlined in the New Jersey 2020 Strategic Highway Safety Plan to drive down fatalities and serious injuries in our state," said Steve Schapiro, NJDOT press mananger.

Schapiro noted that the infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden in November increases funding for highway safety improvement from $58 million to more than $70 million.

The New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety will spend more than $20 million in 2022 on programs and initiatives to enhance traffic safety and improve driver behaviors, according to Lisa Coryell, public information officer. Initiatives include a multimedia campaign launching this month aimed at raising awareness of driving while under the influence, and another in April focused on the dangers of distracted driving.

"Now, more than ever, DHTS needs every driver’s help to keep New Jersey’s roadways safe, and the best way to do that is to slow down, drive sober, and wear a seatbelt," Coryell said.

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

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