Have deserted N.J. highways from coronavirus lockdowns led to extreme speeding?

Have deserted N.J. highways from coronavirus lockdowns led to extreme speeding?

With roughly two-thirds of the pre-coronavirus traffic gone from New Jersey highways, the open lanes are apparently too inviting to drivers who want to set their own little land speed record.

Safety officials said cases of extreme speeding have been happening nationwide since coronavirus travel restrictions went into effect that reduced traffic, leaving wide open lanes on highways.

“We are seeing a lot of heavy-duty speeding across the country. We’ve heard it from law enforcement, people doing 20, 30 and 40 mph over the limit and speeds over 100 mph,” said Pam Shadel Fischer, a Governors Highway Safety Association senior director. “There is a sense that because of COVID-19, law enforcement is diverted. They are still enforcing the traffic laws.”

State Police Superintendent Col. Patrick Callahan used one of Gov. Phil Murphy’s press briefings to report the high speed pursuit of a driver traveling in excess of 100 mph on I-80, who later turned himself in at the Totowa barracks.

In New Jersey, evidence of drivers turning highways into their own NASCAR tracks is anecdotical at best, police said.

It was a topic for discussion at a virtual meeting of the New Jersey Traffic Officers Association, said retired Sgt. Richard Maxwell, association executive director

“You’ll hear about a few, it’s random.” he said.

But there might be one telltale statistic - comparing the number of fatal crashes in the state, as reported by the state police, to the 62% drop in highway traffic, Maxwell said.

The State Police year-to-date fatal crash comparison between 2019 and 2020 shows a 9% drop in fatalities, from 195 in 2019 to 177 in 2020.

“If traffic is down 62%, the percentage of fatal crashes should drop,” he said.

But an analysis of what caused those fatal crashes won’t be known until after the data is analyzed for all of 2020. Traditionally, distracted driving, driving under the influence and speeding are the top three causes of fatal crashes in past years, according to the State Police fatal crash analysis.

“We don’t have the data to say (speeding) is more prevalent. There are drivers who think they can take liberties… it won’t be ignored,” said Major Brian Polite, a State Police spokesman. “Don’t think for a minute that we are not enforcing speed violations.”

Sharp-eyed drivers spotted video message signs on the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State parkway that displayed this warning, “Caught speeding? Mandatory Court Appearance.” However, the Statewide Violations Bureau Schedule shows that speeding 41 or more mph over the limit requires a mandatory court appearance, court officials said.

Some municipal courts returned on May 11 by phone or video conference.

Enforcement hasn’t been easy in a state that was one of the early epicenters for the coronavirus.

But Polite said police are enforcing speed laws, even as it carries its own risks of personal contact with an asymptomatic driver for officers. The problem is with social distancing during a traffic stop, Polite said.

“We try and do our best to protect troopers,” he said. "We don’t want unnecessary interaction that can be avoided.”

Speeding tickets issued statewide in the first quarter of 2020 shows a drop as traffic declined due to nonessential workers being told to stay home.

The year started normally with 13,595 speeding tickets issued in January, slightly less than the 14,696 summons written in January 2019, state Judiciary records showed.

Police issued 33,904 speeding summonses from January through April this year, according to the state judiciary. That was down from 54,187 speeding tickets issued for the same time period on 2019.

The effect of COVID-19 started to be seen in March, when 6,626 were issued, down from 13,527 speeding tickets written in March 2019. That plummeted to 561 tickets issued statewide in April as the coronavirus outbreak peaked. By comparison, police issued 13,523 tickets in April 2019.

New York City’s automatic speed cameras issued 24,765 tickets on March 27, almost double the 12,672 issued to drivers a month earlier, GSHA officials said. A 30% increase in speed prompted Los Angeles officials to change traffic light and pedestrian signal timing.

“Our message is don’t be selfish and slow down,” Fischer said. “The health care system is stressed. Let doctors and nurses deal with the pandemic, not a crash because someone drove at an unsafe speed.”

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Larry Higgs may be reached at lhiggs@njadvancemedia.com.

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