As New Jersey's collective mobility returned following COVID-19 shutdowns in the spring of 2020, the state's notorious traffic ramped up again, so much so that 2021 saw the most deaths in crashes in the Garden State in almost 15 years.

The coronavirus spike in fatalities has not been unique to New Jersey, and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety set out to find out if there were specific reasons behind the increase.

What they discovered was that just a fraction of drivers drove more than usual during the earliest part of the pandemic, but their behavior behind the wheel was enough to significantly shift the numbers.

"While most drivers reduced their driving during the pandemic, there was a small portion that actually increased their driving, and what happened is that those who did increase their driving appeared to be riskier," Shani Jarvis, manager of content & design and public affairs for AAA Northeast, said.

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Just 1 in 25 (4%) got behind the wheel more often in those early months of COVID, according to research reflected in AAA's American Driving Survey, yet Jarvis said those drivers tended to skew younger and disproportionately male, a traditionally riskier population.

Compared to those who did not increase their driving, these motorists self-reported higher rates of speeding, running red lights, aggressive lane changes, shunning seat belts, and driving distracted or impaired.

Risky behaviors
Risky behaviors among those whose driving increased during COVID (AAA Northeast)

More research needs to be done, Jarvis said, but that helped explain a lot.

"What AAA recommends is to obey speed limits. You're not going to save any time by speeding," she said, adding, "Don't use any substances that are going to change how you feel, which will in turn change how you drive."

Jarvis said that the alarming statistics have started to level off, but still on a national scale, the first nine months of 2021 yielded 12% more fatalities than the same period in 2020, encompassing a typical start to the year, the initial COVID shutdown, and restrictions gradually lifting.

Last week, New Jersey began enforcement of an offshoot of its long-running "move over" law, observation of which Jarvis said would go a long way toward cutting down on the death rate.

"We really want to press the importance of slowing down and moving over to protect these folks that are doing their job on the roadside," she said. "There have been far too many crashes."

New Jersey State Police statistics show 703 fatalities on the state's roads in 2021, nearly a 20% jump from the 587 in 2020, which in turn was just a 5% increase over 2019.

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