The number of people who died on U.S. roadways fell last year to 32,36. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), that’s a 1.9 percent decrease from 2010 and the lowest number of fatalities since 1949, when 30,246 lost their lives in motor vehicle crashes. It also marks the fifth consecutive year that deaths caused by traffic crashes have declined nationwide. Injuries also dropped from 2.25 million in 2010 to 2.22 million in 2011. While the 1 percent decline, according to NHTSA, isn’t statistically significant, it’s movement in the right direction.
While the overall news appears to be good, a deeper look at the data reveals that New Jersey didn’t contribute to the decline. In fact, for the first time since 2007, the number of people killed on the state’s roadways increased from 556 in 2010 to 627 last year. That 13 percent increase includes upticks in all roadway user categories -- drivers, passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists. While drivers accounted for more than half of the increase, the rate of bicyclists and motorcyclists killed was significantly higher at 20 and 27.7 percent, respectively, compared to the other categories.
Alcohol-related crashes also increased last year in New Jersey, after falling for the previous five years. Again, this bucks the nationwide finding, where alcohol-impaired driving fatalities declined by 2.5 percent. Perhaps we can take solace in the fact that our alcohol-impaired driving fatalities account for 24 percent of all roadway deaths in the state, compared to the nationwide rate of 31 percent. No matter how you look at it, the numbers are simply unacceptable.
When it comes to pedestrians, the good news is that the rate increase in deaths -- 1.4 percent -- was the lowest of all roadway user groups in New Jersey. But the fact still remains that 143 pedestrians accounted for the second highest number of traffic-related deaths in our state last year and that fatality rate (22.8 percent) is nearly double the national average.
Fatalities involving teens and older drivers also spiked in New Jersey, after falling consistently for nearly a decade. Teen driver and teen passenger (driven by their peers) fatalities jumped nearly 58 percent from 2010, while fatalities involving drivers 65 and older doubled from a low of 68 in 2010 to 135 last year. Crashes involving teens did fall in 2011 (and have been falling since 2006), but the same can’t be said for older drivers. Again, the data is troubling since tremendous work is being done to help novice drivers (the age group with the highest crash risk) gain skill and older drivers stay mobile as long as safely possible.
So what can we do? First, I want to stress that one year does not a trend make. The 2012 fatality numbers for New Jersey show that we’re below where we were at this time last year. But we’re certainly not where we want to be to regain the momentum experienced at the close of 2010 and reach what safety advocates across the nation deem the only acceptable goal -- zero.
I urge all roadway users, regardless of mode (and remember, everyone of us is a pedestrian when we step out of cars or hop off our bikes or motorcycles), to redouble their efforts to make safety priority number one. That doesn’t happen by accident; safety requires effort. It’s up to each of us to buckle up, use crosswalks and pedestrian signals, put down our phones or mobile devices, wear a helmet, observe the posted speed limit, stop at red lights, refrain from drinking and driving, practice driving with our teens.... I think you get the point.
Yes, government is responsible for enforcing motor vehicle laws, ensuring the safety of the roadway system and employing appropriate countermeasures to address our most critical traffic safety problems. But when you consider that more than 85 percent of crashes are caused by behavior, not the weather or the roadway, each of us must step up our game. Until that happens, traffic crashes will continue to plague our highways and bi-ways claiming far too many lives.