A Little Egg Harbor Township teen who died in 2007 on the Garden State Parkway in Stafford Township was victim No. 37 on the highway that year. Her best friend was driving and lost control of the car driving home from a school play.
In 2009, victim No. 5 was another 17-year-old girl from the same town. She was driving with her boyfriend on the parkway when she lost control of an SUV around 3 a.m. in Ocean Township. She had received her provisional driver’s license five days earlier.
The four Mainland Regional High School football players who died in a single-car crash on the parkway in August 2011 were victims Nos. 25 through 28. The teen driver and some passengers tested positive for marijuana. A 19-year-old Cape May County man was victim No. 14 this year. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, and neither was the 21-year-old who was driving the car and later charged with driving while intoxicated.
Those cases demonstrate the point state Department of Transportation Commissioner James Simpson made last month when he called for a thorough review of the parkway’s accident data and a push for a potentially more aggressive driver safety program. Simpson was speaking at a New Jersey Turnpike Authority meeting in Woodbridge Township, Middlesex County. NJTA operates the New Jersey Turnpike and the parkway.
Simpson, who is the chairman of the authority’s board, said he was shocked that 50 percent of the people killed on the highway this year have been men under 30. Most of the 16 deaths occurred on a weekend between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.
“Once again, it’s our youngsters who are dying,” Simpson said at the time.
A review of six years of parkway fatalities by The Press of Atlantic City shows the last time the percentage of deaths involving young people was as high as 50 percent in a single year was in 2008. Overall, 70 of the 170 deaths on the highway since 2007 were people in their teens and 20s.
Put another way, 41 percent of the fatalities since 2007 -- a little more than two out of every five -- involved someone under the age of 30.
That’s higher than the statewide average for fatalities in 2011 and the year-to-date in 2012. In 2011, 202 of 627 fatalities across the state, or just less than one-third, involved a person under 30. So far this year, 148 of the 439 deaths in accidents across the state, or about 34 percent, involved someone under 30, State Police data show.
Wayne Shelton, a traffic safety specialist for the South Jersey Transportation Safety Alliance, said while he can’t speak to safety issues specifically on the parkway, studies show that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers nationwide. His organization runs a driver safety program called Share the Keys, in which parents and students engage in a discussions about driving safety.
The alliance has presented this program at Mainland Regional, Absegami and Egg Harbor Township high schools. On Tuesday the alliance led the presentation at Lower Cape May Regional High School, where the program is required for all students who park on campus.
“We need to recognize that the highway is potentially the most dangerous place on Earth, particularly for inexperienced drivers,” said Shelton, a former State Police trooper. “Studies show that the first 24 months of driving are the most dangerous, and the crash risk for a teenager doubles for every additional person added in the car.”
The fatalities on the parkway involving people in their teens and 20s this year have been almost entirely male. The number of males under the age of 30 killed on the parkway in the past five years outnumbered females by more than 2 to 1. Of the 70 fatalities involving people under 30, 48 were male; 21 were female. In one report, the gender of the victim was not noted.
NJTA Executive Director Ronnie Hakim has developed a committee including representatives from NJTA, DOT and the State Police. That committee will present its findings and recommendations to the Turnpike Authority board at its December meeting, NJTA spokesman Tom Feeney said.
“The first step is doing a thorough review of accident data. That’s under way now,” Feeney said. “Once that’s done, we will be developing some new safety strategies.”
Shelton said the South Jersey Transportation Safety Alliance’s program relies on education of both parents and teens. In part of the program, an instructor will single out one student, often an athlete, and ask how they progressed in skill over the years they’ve played. By comparison, when young people are handed the keys to a vehicle, they are immediately driving on what equates to the “varsity” team of drivers, which can create challenges, Shelton said.
Joe Dee, a DOT spokesman, said Simpson is concerned about the problem and wants solutions. Simpson has a history of moving quickly with such initiatives.
A year ago, three teenagers were killed and a fourth was injured over a two-day span in accidents on NJ Transit railroad tracks. As a result of the accidents in Wayne, Passaic County, and Garfield, Bergen County, Simpson commissioned the Safety Along Railroads Leadership Oversight Committee.
In February, the committee released a report, including an action plan intended to increase safety on railroad tracks. Recommendations focused on engineering, education and enforcements. Among the suggestions was a commitment to launch a program to evaluate the effectiveness of “Second Train Coming” signs and barriers to grade crossings, known as gate skirts.
Simpson said he is focused on the parkway because, unlike the turnpike, it operates more like a local road for those living in or visiting shore towns. By comparison it would be difficult to draw conclusions and generate an education effort based on fatalities on the turnpike, a highway dominated by commuters and truckers.
Data show that more fatal accidents on the parkway occur in North Jersey than South Jersey. Of the 170 deaths on the parkway since 2007, about one-third occurred south of the Toms River toll plaza in Ocean County.
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