Motor vehicle-related fatalities in New Jersey fell to a record low in 2013, but State Police records also show an upward trend in two South Jersey counties.
The 546 people who died on New Jersey roads last year were the fewest since State Police said they began keeping records more than three decades ago.
However, State Police records also show the number of fatalities in Cumberland County increased from 18 in 2012 to 24 in 2013, and from 32 in 2012 to 41 in 2013 in Atlantic County. That represents a 33 percent increase in Cumberland County and a 28 percent increase in Atlantic County.
Atlantic County tied Essex County for the third-most fatalities last year, while Cumberland County placed 12th. The five fatalities in Cape May County were the fewest in any New Jersey county last year, and that total was less than the 11 fatalities that occurred there in 2012. Ocean County had the second-largest number of the fatalities, but the 49 recorded for 2013 were still less than the 53 two years ago.
Cumberland County Public Safety Director James Matlock called 2013 a “blip year” for fatalities.
“Usually, we’re right on line with the same numbers,” he said. “Our roadways are in good as shape as any other county. Enforcement is good. If this trend continues for the next two years, then something is wrong and we need to look at it.”
Matlock said part of the problem could involve an increase in summer traffic.
“Everyone has to pass through Cumberland to get to the shore,” said Matlock, a former state trooper who patrolled Cumberland County.
Atlantic County’s motor vehicle fatality figures fluctuate from year to year, said Christine Zeltman, coordinator for the county’s Office of Highway Safety.
“I would say there is no one trending thing,” she said. “What I can tell you is we are really focusing on distracted driving. Texting seems to be the preferred method of communication. It really has the potential to be a bigger threat than drinking and driving.”
AAA MidAtlantic spokeswoman Sue Madden said the overall decrease in fatalities in New Jersey is likely because of better enforcement efforts by authorities and a motoring public that is driving more safely.
“There are more public-education campaigns,” she said, especially for issues such as texting while driving. “State Police are doing a great job in working with municipalities in enforcing all the laws. Police departments have a lot of new initiatives.
State Police have been keeping motor vehicle-related fatality statistics for slightly more than 30 years.
The 546 fatalities that occurred in New Jersey in 2013 were 7 percent less than the 589 that occurred in 2012, according to State Police. The figure is less than the previous record low of 556 fatalities in 2010. Traffic deaths have also been cut in half since 1981, when 1,160 people died on New Jersey roads.
State Police said in a statement that the decrease in fatalities is aided by safer vehicles, engineering improvements to roadways and better trauma care for injured motorists. Driver safety education and enforcement of roadway laws “have undoubtedly helped, also,” the statement reads.
Still, State Police said there are problems.
Seat belt use in New Jersey fell from almost 95 percent in 2012 to slightly more than 88 percent in 2013, State Police said. The figure remains above the national average of 86 percent, they said, adding that motorists should be prepared for additional enforcement of seat belt regulations this year.
Law enforcement’s biggest challenge to further reducing traffic fatalities involves drivers distracted by portable digital devices such as smartphones, tablets, GPS units and satellite radio receivers, State Police said.
“Ultimately, safer driving is a decision every single driver must make every time they sit in that driver’s seat,” State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes said.
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