When the national totals for traffic fatalities were released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this fall, the news seemed good. Overall, the number of fatal traffic accidents in the U.S. dropped to its lowest level since 1949. Between 2005 and 2010, New Jersey was among the states sharply reducing its rate of fatal motor vehicle accidents. In 2010, the number of New Jersey traffic fatalities was 556 -- the lowest number since the 1940s. Unfortunately, that trend ended in 2011. While 38 states, including New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut continued to post sharp declines, New Jersey saw a 12.8 percent spike in fatal traffic accidents last year. That ranks us second in the entire United States for, behind only California. "It's very discouraging," says the head of the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety. "But it follows years of steep declines. Overall, we have a very good record." We have had a good record up until now, but New Jersey's roadways claimed 627 lives last year. What changed? Safety experts admit that any of a number of factors could be at play -- including the vehicle safety improvements and medical advancements that save lives, but also the economic downturn, regional driving culture and even politics. "Looking at deaths in one year is like looking at a snapshot," explained an assistant NHTSA administrator for our region. "It might be interesting, but you have to look at a trend and examine all the factors that impacted on each death over a longer period, such as age, DUI, driver inattention, location - all of it." In 2011 in New Jersey, there were huge spikes in fatality rates for drivers under 21 (up nearly 58 percent), motorcyclists (up 31 percent) and victims of distracted driving (up 37 percent). While the number of New Jersey motorists killed in commercial truck accidents was down slightly, nationwide, fatalities were up 20 percent among the drivers and occupants of those trucks. The assistant NHTSA administrator said that it looks like our state is prioritizing the right things -- aggressive law enforcement coupled with awareness campaigns and community outreach -- but congressional funds are limited and are often keyed to safety campaigns that may not match New Jersey's specific priorities. How are we doing so far this year? The overall number of fatal motor vehicle accidents in 2012 is running 4 percent behind 2011. Tragically, that translates into 561 innocent people killed on our roadways this year. Source: NorthJersey.com, "Road Warrior: N.J. near top of list for road fatalities," John Cichowski, Road Warrior Columnist, Dec. 14, 2012