The New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety is kicking off National Distracted Driving Awareness Month by introducing a new, statewide campaign that will be showing up during the next few weeks in social media posts, radio advertisements, Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike rest stops, and even supermarkets.

It's called "Take Control Of Your Destiny," and visually consists of colorfully decorated steering wheels, meant to signify what is uniquely important about each New Jersey driver's journey through life.

The slogan: "You Have Places To Go. Don't Drive Distracted."

HTS Director Eric Heitmann said when drivers put their cell phones down, they will be better able to see what lies ahead of them — both literally and metaphorically.

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"We're reminding people what's at stake every time they get behind the wheel," Heitmann said. "We want drivers of all ages to realize that their plans and dreams for the future depend on making safe choices here and now."

State Police statistics show that from 2015 to 2019, distracted driving crashes were responsible for 730 deaths of drivers, passengers, pedestrians, or bicyclists in New Jersey, the leading cause of death among all types of collisions in the state and accounting for more than a quarter of all fatal incidents.

The impact of driver distraction looms even larger when taken as a percentage of the total crashes within a given year in the Garden State.

"Half of them are due to distracted driving, so we're working to change that behavior through this exciting, new public awareness campaign that uses the power of positive messaging," Heitmann said. "The real tragedy of distracted driving is that these crashes and fatalities are so easily preventable. All it takes is for drivers to keep their minds on their driving and their hands on the wheel."

At HTS' newly minted web page devoted to the campaign, a toolkit with a fact sheet and graphics is now available, in English and Spanish.

The Division is also commissioning a study by Rowan University's Center for Research and Education in Advanced Transportation Engineering Systems to take a peek behind the raw stats, and use cameras stationed at strategic locations throughout the state to try and discern just why New Jersey drivers are getting distracted.

Findings from that study, which is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year, could be used to inform future campaigns, according to Heitmann.

"That data will be collected and used to develop recommendations and strategies for addressing and mitigating distracted driving through enforcement and education efforts," he said.

New Jersey drivers can also expect the return of the national "U Drive. U Text. U Pay." campaign this month, for a three-week period ending April 30. Heitmann said New Jersey is one of only eight states in the country to receive grant funding from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for this effort, to the tune of $1.2 million in overtime enforcement grants to 183 different departments.

That said, Heitmann said he and the state Attorney General's office, which oversees HTS, hope that all police departments will participate in the annual initiative, whether they receive specific federal funding or not.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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