TRENTON — Building on the model and success of 2021's "Take Control of Your Destiny" initiative to crack down on distracted driving, the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety is launching a new multimedia campaign called "Wheel Risks" to highlight the dangers of impaired driving.

HTS Director Eric Heitmann said posters and billboards will start showing up along major roadways like the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike, and their service areas, but like last year's media blitz, this one comes in all forms.

"You'll be seeing social media messages, we'll have digital messages on YouTube, streaming audio, and other digital media, as well as billboards," Heitmann said.

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The campaign has the full cooperation of the New Jersey Department of Transportation, the state Office of the Attorney General — under which HTS operates — and the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, with the protracted rollout of the Garden State's recreational marketplace still on the horizon.

"In light of the impending cannabis market, we wanted to do some mythbusting and make sure that folks are aware that all forms of DUI are illegal," Heitmann said. "Basically we're just again urging New Jerseyans, if you plan to use cannabis, do so responsibly, just as you would with medication or alcohol."

'Anything that makes you feel different could make you drive different'

There may be a misconception that people might be able to drive better when they're high, and that it's safer than driving after drinking, all of which Heitmann said simply is not true.

Anything that makes you feel different could make you drive different, he said.

"We want to ensure that everyone understands that impaired driving isn't just caused by alcohol," Heitmann said. "It can be caused by alcohol, cannabis in all of its forms, illegal drugs, even prescription or over-the-counter medications."

Percentage of drivers under the influence of drugs rising in fatal crashes

According to Heitmann, HTS is spending $4.7 million during the federal fiscal year on enforcement and public awareness funding.

It comes not a moment too soon. State Police data showed that 2021 was the deadliest single year on New Jersey roadways since 2007, with fatal crashes and fatalities themselves both up at least 20% over 2020.

In 2020, almost 30% of crashes resulting in fatalities in the Garden State listed driving while intoxicated as a contributing factor.

The OAG said the percentage of drivers with drugs like marijuana or prescription medications present in their system after a fatal crash is increasing, even with the percentage of those under the influence of alcohol has remained flat.

A simple and safe option, as Heitmann put it, is just to call a friend, family member, taxi or rideshare if under the influence. A driver could risk not only arrest, but also injury to themselves or others.

More information can be found here. Heitmann said Jersey drivers can also look out for what he called "version 2.0" of the Take Control of Your Destiny campaign, which will start in April.

Patrick Lavery is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com

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