NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—For the second year in a row, Middlesex County led the state in death caused by crashes, even as the numbers trended downward in the rest of the state.
Motor vehicle crashes killed 64 people here last year, despite a county government pledge two years prior to pursue a “vision” where no serious crashes occur by the year 2040.
And the statistics are no better this year, with at least nine dead already and Middlesex again leading among the state’s 21 counties in the disturbing category.
The January death toll included at least two drivers, two passengers, three pedestrians, and one person who was driving but got out of their car before being fatally struck.
The disturbing statistics are drawn from the latest information made available by the New Jersey State Police, which tracks every fatal crash occurring in the state.
In the first month of 2024, eight lives were lost in six separate Middlesex County crashes, and a ninth person was killed on the morning of February 1, according to the data.
When questioned that night by New Brunswick Today at their public meeting, the county’s top elected official got defensive, deflecting blame for the deaths, and accusing this reporter of being “pretty disgraceful,” supposedly for making it seem like the county was “negligent.”
“Number one, you said there were eight fatalities in Middlesex County. Not one—zero—were on any Middlesex County road,” said Commissioner Director Ronald Rios, who had previously failed to respond to emailed requests for comments about the fatal crash stats.
“There were seven on state highways, and one on a municipal road, so for you to make a comment like that, like we were negligent, was pretty disgraceful if you ask me,” said Rios.
Regardless of what kinds of roads were involved in the recent crashes, the lives of nine men and women between the ages of 18 and 93 years old have been tragically cut short in the first five weeks of 2024.
Rios’ comments and the county’s overall response to the deaths raise questions about how closely the administration has been following through on the plan amid personnel changes.
A key point in the 2022 “Vision Zero Action Plan” approved by Rios and his Commissioner colleagues is that different jurisdictions, like state, county, and local governments, should cooperate, rather than shift blame or pass the buck.
The Vision Zero initiative “will allow maximum collaboration to make all county roads safer and eliminate preventable traffic deaths and injuries by 2040,” according to the action plan.
NINE DEATHS ALREADY THIS YEAR
The first two fatal crashes in the county this year took place on US Route 1, a well-traveled highway that bisects the Middlesex County along its path from Maine to Florida.
Just hours into the new year, 25-year-old Louisa Bradlow Carman, a Princeton woman who worked for Governor Phil Murphy, was killed on the highway in Plainsboro near College Road.
“Louisa will be remembered as a kind and caring colleague who approached her work with grace, integrity, and a deep commitment to making a difference in our world,” said Governor Murphy. “I, and everyone on our team, will miss her terribly.”
Murphy praised Carman during his State of the State speech, and agreed to name the proposed healthcare legislation she was working on after her.
“She wasn’t technically a pedestrian,” said Brynn Krause of the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office. “She exited her vehicle and while she was out of the vehicle she was killed.”
One week later, in Edison Township, another pedestrian was killed while crossing Route 1 at the intersection with Plainfield Avenue, which is a Middlesex County road.
Adam Ginsberg, a 52-year-old resident of Dunellen, lost his life at that intersection. The person driving the car that hit him cooperated with authorities, and no charges were filed.
The next two fatalities took place in Sayreville, with 18-year-old Staten Island resident Madison Alfano crashing into oncoming traffic on the Garden State Parkway on January 12.
Ten days later, on January 22, a pedestrian was killed on US Route 9 in Sayreville, reportedly after climbing over a concrete barrier in the middle of the highway.
During the early morning hours of January 28, a 93-year-old pedestrian named Young Park was killed near the intersection of Remsen Avenue and Nassau Street in North Brunswick, just a short distance from the New Brunswick city limits.
Park was a resident of the Martin Gerber Apartments, a building that provides housing for senior citizens and the disabled, located at 550 Remsen Avenue.
Senior citizens are often presented with challenges crossing intersections, even those located near housing and other facilities intended for the elderly.
The brutal month ended January 31, with a tragic crash involving a school bus that killed three individuals from Monroe Township, on US Route 130 in South Brunswick.
The next morning, an employee of the Old Bridge Home Depot reportedly died when his own vehicle became wedged under a trailer in the store’s loading dock.
OVER 100 DEAD SINCE PLAN ADOPTED
The County Commissioners approved their “Vision Zero pledge” on July 21, 2022, and the action plan itself was approved on September 1, 2022.
The milestones came two years after the county quietly stopped having Transportation Coordinating Committee meetings, and just months before the county’s Transportation Director abruptly left office.
Since the plan was adopted, at least five people have died traversing streets in New Brunswick, and another 96 were killed in crashes around the county.
Despite being the site of more crash deaths than any other county in New Jersey, the government said in a statement that its 2022 plan puts the county “alongside other global leaders in transportation safety.”
“Implementation of this plan is ongoing, evident for example in the County’s ongoing implementation of traffic signal corridor optimization at vital intersections and as we move forward, implementation will involve continual stakeholder outreach and ongoing public input and feedback,” reads the statement from the county government.
“The County has been proactive in addressing safety concerns by integrating Vision Zero’s ‘safety first’ principles into all projects… The County is actively looking for ways to reduce traffic fatalities by tracking crashes, identifying new projects to improve traffic safety, scrutinizing land development applications on the County’s high injury network map, and much more.”
The statement said the county was proud to be the first in the state to adopt a “countywide action plan,” and credited a “Vision Zero Partnership Leadership Committee” with doing the work to prepare that plan.
We asked whether the leadership committee was active or defunct, and the response came back: “As the purpose of the Vision Zero Partnership Leadership Committee was to develop the Action Plan, once the plan was adopted, the Committee had fulfilled its purpose.”
The county has experienced turnover in two key positions since the plan’s adoption, with Linda Weber taking over for Planning Director Doug Greenfield departing in March 2023.
That move came just a few months after the Transportation Director who ushered in the Vision Zero plan, Solomon Caviness, left his position effective November 30, 2022. Caviness has since resurfaced as the head of Atlanta’s Department of Transportation.
In Caviness’ absence, South Brunswick’s Democratic Party boss Khalid Anjum was selected to replace him in the Director role, on top of his other responsibilities overseeing infrastructure for the county.
If the committee is dead, that means the county is not having regular meetings about transportation or vision zero, after abandoning the long-standing Transportation Coordinating Committee, which had been meeting in public since 1976.
The plan itself says that the partnership, though not necessary the leadership committee, is supposed to continue on: “The Partnership will be an ongoing collaboration to help implement, evaluate, and monitor the Vision Zero Action Plan.”
Despite repeated requests, the county government still hasn’t provided the names of any of the people on the committee, only saying it was “comprised of the mayors of Middlesex County’s 25 municipalities or their designees and two County Commissioner co-Chairs.”
When we asked the administration of New Brunswick Mayor James Cahill if any of the city’s elected officials were involved in the partnership, they didn’t provide a substantive response.
“Let me ask and find out,” said Bert Baron, one of two Public Information Officers working under the Mayor. Nearly a month later, he still has not provided an answer and could not offer one at the February 8 City Council meeting.
In 2022, Mayor Cahill reportedly told a class of charter school students that “there has been an 85% reduction in the number of vehicle-related deaths over the last 75 years.”
The truth is that the number of fatalities actually increased by more than 30% over that time period.
Though no one has died on the streets of New Brunswick so far this year, the Hub City was the scene of three fatal crashes in 2023, claiming the lives of two drivers and a bicyclist.
And that’s not counting the August crash where an Edison Police Officer crashed across from New Brunswick High School, on the Somerset County side of the line that divides Route 27, one of the most dangerous corridors in the area.
Asked what city leaders were doing to calm traffic and prevent deaths here, a couple members of the New Brunswick Traffic Commission had some thoughts to share.
Planning Director Daniel Dominguez said the city is doing some work to make New Brunswick streets safer.
“We’ve been annually buying, in batches, flashing crosswalks targeting intersections for visibility,” said Dominguez, who added the city plans to install more bike racks to “daylight” intersections in the Sixth Ward.
“We’re trying to focus on the schools, and the crossings that lead to the school crossings,” added Thomas Valenti, who heads the Public Works and Engineering Department. “There’s only so much that we can do.”
Valenti also said a “speed table” will be installed on Neilson Street as part of the city and county’s plans for a new downtown park, and a state project is expected to reduce dangerous situations along Route 27.
The little-known city commission is one of the few public entities that openly discusses transportation on a regular basis, as the the Middlesex County Transportation Coordinating Committee apparently suspended its public meetings in 2020.
In a statement on January 31, the county said it is “re-envisioning how best to communicate transportation public policy goals and to engage with our community by reaching out to them and meeting them where they are,” noting this “is being envisioned to replace the outdated Transportation Coordinating Committee model which has been in place since the 1970s.
“We look forward to sharing details on this program in the first quarter of this year.”
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.