Drunk and High Drivers; Top Cause of Fatal Crashes in N.J.

Intoxicated drivers buzzed on booze and drugs are now the leading cause of fatal traffic crashes in New Jersey, according to a just-released annual State Police report that analyzed fatal collisions in 2021.

 For the first time in a decade, distracted driving was not the leading cause of fatal crashes in the state, the State Police report found. While a 2023 state safety plan laid out strategies and program to reduce crashes, safety and driver advocates are debating, and in some cases disagreeing, about the best ways to do that.

 In 2021, 697 people were killed in 667 crashes, the highest fatalities since 2007 and an increase for the third year in a row, despite the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. New Jersey had 218 fatal pedestrian crashes in 2021, the highest number since 1989.

Intoxication (both alcohol and drugs) was the top “contributing factor” in 210 fatal crashes in 2021, a 30% increase from the 162 crashes in 2020 where intoxication was blamed, the analysis found. The 210 crashes in 2021 killed a total of 228 people.

For the first time, the analysis separated the number of crashes where drivers, pedestrians or cyclists tested positive for cannabis. It showed 91 drivers, 13 passengers, 23 pedestrians and two cyclists tested positive for cannabis after fatal crashes.

 “As for impaired driving topping distracted driving, this is happening in many states,” said Pam Fischer, the Governor’s Highway Safety Association senior director of external engagement, and the former state Division of Highway Safety executive director.

“Consuming cannabis and then driving immediately afterward is not safe,” she said. “Just like we say with those who consume alcohol, don’t drink and then drive. Make alternate arrangements.”

Current trauma center research funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicates that impaired driving continues to increase and that multiple substances are becoming common, she said. Cannabis is typically one of those substances, Fischer said.

 New Jersey legalized the recreational use of marijuana in 2021. Yet to be determined is the effect legalization had on crashes. Unlike alcohol, which has a legal standard for intoxication based on blood alcohol content, determining cannabis intoxication relies on evaluation by trained Drug Recognition Experts.

Other issues include cannabis remaining in a person’s system for a long period of time and can’t be solely used to show a person is impaired. State rules require experts to help figure that out.

Use of police officers trained as Drug Recognition Experts was upheld by a judge in August in a 332 page report.

A survey by AAA of New Jersey drivers showed a large disparity in the perception that driving under the influence of drugs isn’t as dangerous as driving drunk, said Tracy Noble, AAA MidAtlantic spokeswoman.

 “Driving under the influence of drugs, be it prescription drugs, cannabis or illegal substances, is a growing presence on our roadways,” she said. “We must work to identify resources to educate all drivers about the dangers of impaired driving beyond just drunk driving.”

 AAA, the state Division of Highway Traffic Safety and the New Jersey Cannabis Trade Association are providing impaired driving information to cannabis consumers at the checkout counter at all dispensaries in the state to help educate them, Noble said.

 A motorist’s group said the analysis needs more information about what leads a crash to be attributed to driving under the influence, if other causes are involved.

“There’s plenty of detailed data about alcohol presence and level for people involved in fatal crashes, but no clear information if alcohol actually contributed to a specific crash,” said said Steve Carrellas, National Motorist Association state policy director. “That opens the door for misrepresenting the role of intoxication.”

Distracted driving, also called driver inattention, was a factor in 194 fatal crashes, the report said. Defined by safety advocates as any activity that takes a driver’s attention away from the road or operation of their vehicle, it’s been the top cause in New Jersey for 10 years.

 “The State Police Fatal Accident Investigation Unit should include definitions of crash attributes and make it easier to cross-reference them to get a truer picture of the underlying cause of each fatal crash,” Carrellas said.

Pedestrian violations were the third highest, listed as factors in 163 collisions. The crashes include crossing against a red traffic signal, failing to yield the right of way to a vehicle when crossing outside of a crosswalk or entering the path of travel of a vehicle when “it is impossible” for the driver to yield or stop. It also includes crossing a highway or roadway separated by a concrete center median or barrier.

Pedestrian safety advocates have challenged that, saying the pedestrian violation doesn’t account for bad road design, lack of pedestrian infrastructure, not enough green light time to cross, or long distances between intersections with traffic signals.

 “Solutions that focus on personal responsibility and enforcement and target individual behavior change, while part of the solution, don’t address the underlying causes that our streets and cars are not designed with safety as a priority,” said Debra Kagan, New Jersey Bike and Walk Coalition executive director.

Kagan said the availability of federal funds from the $1 trillion federal infrastructure act provides an “historic opportunity” to design streets and roads to serve and be safe for all users.

But Carrellas said not crossing at an intersection was the largest and most consistent issue identified in the report’s pedestrian fatalities section.

 “I have been concerned in recent years that the advocates for pedestrians have been focused on measures that don’t get to the root of pedestrian deaths – bad decision making,” he said. “If those advocates want to see drastic improvements in pedestrian deaths immediately, they need to spend more effort on defensive walking messaging.”

Speeding was a very distant fourth among the fatal crash causes in 2021 with 70 deaths, almost edged out by failure to yield the right of way.

The state Division of Highway Traffic Safety 2023 safety plan outlines programs and grants to address priority issues and grades ongoing safety efforts.

That plan credited distracted driving education and awareness campaigns for a 33% overall reduction in distracted driving crashes from 137,113 to 91,334 incidents in 2020. The state met a 2020 goal to limit a predicted increase of distracted driving related fatal crashes. Federal funding for distracted driving programs will continue in 2023.

But other goals aren’t on track, including an overall goal set in 2020 to reduce fatalities 3% annually, or 14% cumulatively from 2020 to 2025. Instead, the state saw a 4.7% increase in fatalities from 2019 to 2020, the plan said. Fatal crashes increased in 2021 and again in 2022. A detailed analysis of crash causes for last year is not yet available.

 The state also didn’t meet goals to reduce crashes caused by intoxicated drivers and traffic deaths due to drivers and passengers who did not wear seat belts, the 2023 plan said.

During an event announcing annual ranking of states for enacting safety laws in December, Rana Abbas Taylor, a member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving of Michigan, reiterated support for national legislation that would require ignition interlocking devices in new vehicles that require a driver to test negative for alcohol to start the vehicle and for states to lower the Blood Alcohol Content level to be considered legally intoxicated from .08 to .05.

 New Jersey efforts to reduce driving under the influence in 2023 include high-visibility enforcement campaigns to be conducted in targeted locations and during national impaired driving campaigns, and on a sustained basis in some locations. A major public awareness campaign is planned and a focus on drug-impaired driving, the safety plan stated.

 Also being debated is whether the state should adopt the Vision Zero safety program, which is used by Hoboken and Jersey City. Officials from both cities said the program reduced traffic deaths on municipal roads to zero. The state currently uses a different program, Toward Zero Deaths.

 “We need to learn from Hoboken and Jersey City’s implementation of Vision Zero Action plans,” Kagan said. “We need coordinated statewide leadership to make a real impact and that is why the coalition, as part of the Vision Zero Alliance of NJ, have been working with our legislators to propose a Vision Zero Commission to lead this effort.”

 Two bills in the state senate and assembly to establish a Vision Zero study commission have not come up for a vote by either of the full legislative bodies.

But another approach might be better, Fischer said.

 A hybrid strategy, the National Roadway Safety Strategy, was rolled out by the U.S. Department of Transportation last year that combines the Safe Systems Approach of Vision Zero and the Toward Zero Deaths while addressing equity, since people of color are disproportionately represented in traffic fatalities, Fischer said. Aspects of the strategy are included in the state 2023 highway safety plan.

“That’s only the first step, you need leadership, an aggressive action plan and the funding and foot soldiers to implement it, along with community engagement and a mechanism for reporting on progress and impact,” she said.

Source: Larry Higgs | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

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