Senate Transportation Committee advances bill to address traffic safety

The Senate Transportation committee on Thursday voted unanimously to create a “Vision Zero Task Force” to address the state’s traffic safety crisis.

Senator Patrick Diegnan and Assemblyman Rob Karabinchak, who both represent the 18th Legislative District, sponsored the legislation in their respective houses.

The 21-member task force would study, examine, and review all aspects of traffic safety with a particular focus on access, equity, and mobility for all road users using the “safe system approach,” and advise the governor, legislature, and Department of Transportation regarding policies, programs, research, and priorities to help achieve the goal of eliminating traffic fatalities and catastrophic injuries.

“New Jersey is committed to improving road safety to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries from crashes,” Diegnan and Karabinchak said in a joint statement. “Traffic fatalities on our state’s roadways have increased in 2022 for the third consecutive year. New Jersey is the country’s most densely populated state and among our nation’s most traveled. Continued efforts to evaluate traffic safety and transportation system designs with the goal of reducing crashes must be a top priority for our state.”

According to the New Jersey State Police, 526 fatalities have occurred on state roadways this year, an increase from 481 traffic-related deaths in 2021 and 415 such fatalities in 2020.

More than 30 percent of the 1,421 people who died on New Jersey roadways since January 2020 are pedestrians and cyclists. Last year was the deadliest since 1989 for pedestrians in the Garden State, which is the 19th deadliest nationwide for pedestrians, according to Smart Growth America’s Dangerous by Design report.

“The need for this task force stands out clearly as we witness the terrible rise in traffic fatalities in our state and across the country,” New Jersey Bike and Walk Coalition Executive Director Debra Kagan said during the committee meeting.

“This crisis is statewide, hitting urban, suburban, and rural areas and our most vulnerable road users and marginalized communities continue to bear the brunt of this public health crisis. While our state agencies are implementing various countermeasures, our road fatalities continue to climb. The question before us is, what do we need to do to turn the tide and get to zero deaths and serious injuries on our roads?”

First implemented in Europe more than three decades ago and gaining momentum in the United States, Vision Zero is a strategy using the “safe system approach,” which the U.S. Department of Transportation adopted for evaluating traffic safety and designing a transportation system by prioritizing roadway design, focusing on speed management, ensuring equitable enforcement, and utilizing impactful education strategies.

The “Vision Zero Task Force,” whose membership would include representatives of various state agencies and the public, would provide advice and assistance to county and municipal governments to develop their own Vision Zero plans.

Under the direction of County Commissioner Director Ronald Rios, Middlesex County is investing in transportation safety and launching a “Vision Zero” initiative aimed at reducing the number and severity of motor vehicle crashes county-wide.

“Traffic fatalities are a public health crisis facing our state,” Sonia Szczesna, director of Active Transportation for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and a founding member of the Vision Zero New Jersey Alliance, said during Thursday’s meeting.

“We’ve been seeing the rate of death on our roads continue to rise at an alarming rate. And while this has been a national trend, New Jersey has seen an increase that’s nearly double the national average. This is an issue for all New Jerseyans, but it’s one that also disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color.”

The “Vision Zero Task Force” legislation has been referred to the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee and will be considered for a vote in the full Senate.

The Senate Transportation Committee heard moving testimony from state residents (Sangeeta Badlani, Pam O’Donnell, Wendy Kukowski) whose loved ones died as victims on New Jersey roadways, and equally powerful remarks from a survivor (Arland Macasieb) and first responder (Stephen Dunn), all of who are members of Families for Safe Streets New Jersey. An audio replay of the testimony, including comments from advocate Jim Hunt, can be heard in its entirety here beginning at the 18-minute mark.

“It’s too easy to let this problem become one about statistics,” Szczesna said, noting Thursday’s testimony humanized the data. “In reality, each and every one of the people killed on the roads in New Jersey have a family, a community, a network. And their loss has huge impacts on the communities.”

“Now is the moment to act quickly to address this issue head on and prevent the continued tragic loss of life on the roads.”

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