A former Miss New Jersey, a beloved Pleasantville school teacher and a Lower Township teen looking forward to graduation make up just a small fraction of the 600 people who died in New Jersey last year from car crashes.
Data from the State Police show motor-vehicle-related deaths — which include not just when two vehicles crash, but also incidents involving cars and pedestrians or bicyclists — increased 8 percent over 2015, mirroring a national trend.
“For each of those fatalities, there are moms and dads and brothers and sisters … who are grieving and will likely grieve the rest of their lives,” said Joel Feldman, founder of End Distracted Driving.
Feldman, of Springfield, Pennsylvania, lost his daughter, Casey, 21, in 2009 when she was struck by a car while crossing a street in Ocean City.
One of the biggest contributing factors to deaths on the road has been distracted driving. A New Jersey State Police report shows that from 2011 to 2015, driver inattention was the leading factor in fatal accidents.
“I drove distracted all the time, and I didn’t change until my daughter was killed,” said Feldman. “It would be awful if it was tragedies that caused us to change.”
Across the country, motor-vehicle deaths have been on the rise. A National Safety Council report in August showed motor-vehicle deaths up 9 percent in the first six months of last year over the same period in 2015. And deaths were 18 percent higher in that period than two years ago.
It’s too early to tell why motor-vehicle crashes have increased dramatically over the past year, but police say cutting down on speed, wearing your seat belt and concentrating on driving are vital to saving lives.
“People get sick of hearing police reiterating over and over again, ‘Buckle up. It saves lives,’ but there are people that still don’t buckle up. We know for a fact that seat belts save lives,” said New Jersey State Trooper Sgt. Jeff Flynn.
The circumstances behind every fatal crash vary, but the results remain the same.
Galloway Township had one of the highest occurrences of fatal crashes in Atlantic County in 2016. Police Lt. Rich Barber said five of the accidents involved pedestrians whose errors contributed to the crash.
“We did have one in particular (who) was crossing the White Horse Pike for a bus stop,” Barber said. “Other ones were crossing the pike against the signal. Sometimes they don’t like to wait.”
Figuring out how to educate pedestrians is the toughest part, he said.
Maureen Garcia, who has been using the state’s bus system for transportation for the last five years, said she regularly walks along Route 30 without issue because she knows to be careful.
“I’ve never had a problem,” said Garcia, 40, of Atlantic City. “As long as you’re aware of your surroundings.”
AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Tracy Noble said the rise in fatalities is unfortunate because so many are avoidable.
“Distracted driving remains a large factor in the fatalities. It is something we need to understand, that driving is a singular task, and they need to focus on the roadway when they are behind the wheel,” she said.
Feldman’s daughter became an inspiration for New Jersey’s Casey’s Law, which imposes strict regulations for drivers to stop at crosswalks. He and his wife, Dianne Anderson, began the End Distracted Driving organization and often speak at local schools and organizations on the dangers.
“The way I look at it is: Drunk driving is not socially acceptable; we’re not there yet with distracted driving,” he said.
Feldman sees hope in the younger generation, using tactics similar to campaigns to deter smoking or drunken driving.
“I’m very encouraged with talking with teens. Teens are focusing on the driver, and they’re saying ‘that driver is selfish, that driver is disrespectful and that driver is inconsiderate.’”