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State of Driving: New Jersey

Johnna Kaplan

You could say New Jersey’s identity is inseparable from its roads – after all, this is the state where people identify where they live not by town or street name, but by exit number.

The highways that lead into New York City and Philadelphia and the byways that traverse the quieter parts of this relatively small but geographically varied state have become a fundamental part of American culture. No matter where you live, if you’ve ever hummed along as Simon and Garfunkel sang, “counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America” or turned up the radio when you heard Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” you’ve experienced a bit of the romance of New Jersey’s roads.

If you live or work in New Jersey, whether you love the drive-through life or complain about the congested commutes, you know that being in your vehicle is an integral part of your life. Here are some helpful things to know before you get behind the wheel in the Garden State.

New Jersey’s Car Culture

Garden State roads are also known for confounding out-of-state drivers with their quirks, like jughandles (New Jersey has more than 600 of this type of intersection, in which drivers must turn right in order to turn left) and full-service-only gas stations, mandated by the state legislature in 1949 and thus far resistant to attempts to allow self-service. The state is also associated with shopping malls and suburban sprawl, a landscape that goes hand in hand with the automobile.

New Jersey’s state motto is “Liberty and Prosperity,” and these days, it seems many residents of the state take that to mean freedom to drive to work. At 14.8 percent, the Garden State has the second-highest percentage of commuters making mega commutes – defined as a commute of an hour or more. That’s because more New Jerseyans travel to work in another state than people from any other state in America. Unsurprisingly, they commute mostly to New York (396,520 workers) and Pennsylvania (123,650.)

But not everyone in New Jersey drives to the office; public transportation is big here too, with more employed residents of New Jersey taking transit to work than in any other state besides New York. In 2015, 11.1% of New Jersey workers took public transportation to work. (3.1% walked to work.)

Your Mileage May Vary

Given how much time New Jerseyans spend in their cars, it may come as a surprise to learn that the estimated average annual miles driven per capita in New Jersey in 2014 was about 8,016, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration. That’s lower than the national average of about 13,500. That number is down over 3% from 2011, when New Jerseyans drove an average of 8,286 miles.

Driving over 8,000 miles in a year on New Jersey’s roads can take its toll (no E-ZPass related pun intended) on your vehicle. And between regular oil changes, new tires, and unexpected repairs, the cost can add up. This is especially true in states like New Jersey where weather conditions can range from extreme heat to heavy snow to severe storms, all of which impact both roads and vehicles.

Urban vs. Rural Roads

You can find any type of driving environment in New Jersey, from dirt roads to leafy suburban streets to some of the busiest stretches of interstate in the nation. If you travel around the state often, it’s likely you’ll find yourself on many different sorts of roads, from rural to urban. And no matter how carefully you drive, where you drive is a factor in your risk for getting in an accident.

In 2015, the latest year for which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration provides data, the vast majority of driving-related fatalities in New Jersey occurred on urban roads. Out of a total of 562 fatal crashes, 451 happened on urban roads and 64 on rural roads. (47 fatal crashes occurred in unknown circumstances.) But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. The fatality rate for rural roads in New Jersey was more than double that of urban roads. That’s partly because on a rural road, you’re more likely to encounter wild animals, drunk drivers, and narrower lanes. Drivers on rural roads also tend to speed more and go without seat-belts, and remote locations can be more difficult for first responders to reach in a timely manner.

The Price of Gas

According to Gas Buddy, as of this writing, the average New Jersey gas price is about $2.40 a gallon. This is up from last spring’s Garden State gas prices, but down from prices in early 2017 and similar to the average price of gas nationwide. Of course, an average is just that, and gas prices can vary considerably depending on where in the state you’re buying fuel. While other factors play a role, in general when the cost of gas goes down, drivers can expect to see more cars on the roads.

No matter what the price of gas is, if you drive often, it can feel like you’re filling up your tank (or in New Jersey, having someone else do it) all the time. To save money, there are steps you can take to improve your vehicle’s fuel efficiency.

The Unemployment Rate

Though you might not think that a state’s employment rate would affect its driving habits, the two are in fact related. When more people in a location are employed, more workers need to commute, and there are more vehicles on the roads. As well, higher employment rates mean more people have more disposable income to spend on leisure activities like dining out and shopping – which probably require a drive to the mall – and more buyers are in the market for new cars.

New Jersey’s unemployment rate is currently approximately 4.7%, which is down slightly from 4.8% a year ago, and down even further from its 2010 high-point of 9.8%. But this good news isn’t spread out equally across the Garden State; the number of unemployed individuals is considerably higher in the southern part of the state, including Atlantic, Cumberland, and Cape May counties. There, unemployment averages at about 10%, considerably higher than the nationwide unemployment rate, which fell to 4.4% in April of 2017.

Distracted Driving

Distracted driving, which includes cell phone use as well as looking at passengers or pets in the car, smoking, or adjusting the radio dial, is a serious issue in New Jersey. According to the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General driver inattention was a major contributing cause in over 800,000 motor vehicle crashes in the Garden State between 2010 and 2014. It is also an issue that state officials don’t take lightly; New Jersey was one of the first states to implement distracted driving laws, and it now has some of the strictest on the books.

Drivers are forbidden from talking or texting on a hand-held wireless device while driving, and novice drivers (as well as bus drivers) are also banned from talking on hands-free devices. (Both of these are considered primary offenses.) Plus, in certain circumstances, if you send a text to someone you know to be driving at the time you could be held responsible for that driver’s actions if an accident occurs. Distracted driving fines range from $200 to $400 for a first offense, to up to $800 and a possible 90-day license suspension for a third offense.

Teen Drivers in New Jersey

New Jersey’s Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) has a three-step process (called the “early bird road” for teen drivers ages 16 and up. Teens first obtain a student learner’s permit, with which they may drive under supervision for a minimum of six months. They then receive a probationary license, with which they may drive for one year unsupervised but with restrictions. Then, if they are 18 years of age, they can obtain a basic driver’s license.

First-time drivers who are 17 or older can take the “young adult road,” in which driving students can skip the student learner’s permit and apply for an examination permit before earning their probationary license and, finally, a basic driver’s license.

Though substantial monitoring is built into New Jersey’s licensing system in the form of supervised driving for beginners, if you’re a nervous parent of a first-time teen driver, you might be relieved to know there are additional ways to monitor your teen’s driving habits even when you are not in the car with them.

Auto Insurance in the Garden State

Auto insurance is required in New Jersey. The two most common types of car insurance policies in the state are Basic, which offers less protection at a lower cost, and Standard, which offers more coverage and options for a higher price tag and is preferred by most Garden State drivers.

State law requires every driver to have, at minimum, a Basic policy including:

  • Property damage liability insurance of $5,000,
  • Personal injury protection coverage of $15,000.

Drivers can also choose a Standard policy, which includes:

  • Bodily injury liability insurance of $15,000 per person/ $30,000 per accident
  • Property damage liability insurance of $5,000
  • Uninsured/ underinsured motorist bodily injury liability insurance of $15,000 per person/ $30,000 per accident
  • Uninsured motorist property damage liability insurance of $5,000
  • Personal injury protection coverage of $15,000.

You must provide your New Jersey Insurance Identification Card (given to you by your insurance company) if you are involved in an accident, stopped by a police officer, or having your vehicle inspected. Driving without insurance can result in “fines, community service, license suspension and insurance surcharges,” per the MVC.

The State of Driving in New Jersey

Turnpikes, parkways, bridges, and tunnels are a way of life in New Jersey, and although public transportation is more popular here than in many other states, New Jerseyans’ love of cars is not going to go away any time soon. That’s why staying informed about the rules of the road will help you make good decisions and keep you safe, whether you’re heading into the city or down the shore.

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