July 4th driving: Dangerous even with no drinking

Death doesn't take a holiday on July 4th. "On average, more people die in motor vehicle crashes on Independence Day than any other day of the year," warns the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The Fourth traditionally outpaces all other holidays (even New Year's Day) when it comes to driving mayhem (chart below). That's partly attributable to the fact that it's often a four-day "weekend." Like this year, when it begins on Saturday, July 1, and ends on Tuesday, July 4 -- although July 5th can be a busy driving day, too. 

But danger also results from the staggering amount of traffic. A record 37.5 million people are projected to jam roadways during this time, according to the American Automobile Association (AAA).

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Source: IIHS

Drinking then driving is often considered the biggest culprit when it comes to auto accidents. But experts say other holiday hazards can mimic drunkenness and are equally as dangerous. Here are a few:

Not getting enough sleep

Many drivers who weave down the highways may not have imbibed that much at the barbecue, said safety expert Jake Nelson of AAA. Instead, they simply stayed up late packing or got up early to send an email to the boss. Missing two hours of the recommended seven hours of sleep in the last 24-hour period nearly doubles your risk of a crash. 

One solution: Take a 15-minute cat nap at a rest stop. "It's not just for babies," said Nelson. Stopping to rest every 200 miles is another option. Police say 100,000 crashes per year are the result of driver fatigue.

The roar of fireworks

Independence Day is synonymous with an overabundance of deafening fireworks. Driving home with a bad case of tinnitus means the ringing in your ears could drown out the sound of horns, sirens and other typical noises you listen for, particularly if the windows are up and the air conditioner is blasting. Fireworks can also be visually disorienting.

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Source: IIHS

Driving alone

Believe it or not, your performance on the road is actually enhanced by having someone share the ride. Your passenger is likely to tell you not to answer that cell phone call or respond to that text. Women are better at doing this than men, said Chris Hayes, who handles Risk Control at Travelers Insurance. Nearly twice as many women as men will speak up when they're in the car with a distracted driver.

Dashboard distractions

Think you're a safe driver because you're "hands-free" and don't have a phone pressed against your ear? Not so, said the AAA's Nelson. An AAA survey shows that sending a text using voice commands can distract the driver for as long as 27 seconds afterwards. Even at 25 miles per hour -- about a third of the speed most of us go on the interstate -- that's the length of three football fields, more than enough time and space to get into trouble.

Using cruise control may not be the best idea on a long night's drive either. It can cause you to lose focus

Unseen tire problems

Bald tires equal trouble, according to Chris Welty, a tire education specialist at Bridgestone Americas. Next to brakes, where the rubber meets the road is likely to create your biggest nightmare. 

Welty said a penny's worth of protection is the best cure. Stick a penny in your tire's tread and see if it reaches Lincoln's head. If not, it may be time to change the tire. And by the way, "about half of moms admit they don't know how to change a flat tire," he pointed out. If that's a problem for the lady, buy "run flats" that can go 50 miles after a puncture.

Driving while dehydrated

Drinking -- water, that is -- to stay hydrated is a better alternative than gulping down a few beers on a day like July 4th, particularly after a touch football or volleyball game. "This holiday comes during the hottest part of the summer," said Travelers' Hayes, "and often you can't perceive the risk from dehydration." 

But it mimics the effects of alcohol, he added. "It both slows reaction time and increases fatigue."

Not knowing where you're going

Most people know they're not supposed to use their cell phones while driving. But they do it anyway, and 27 percent of the time it's when they're away from familiar territory and simply got lost, according to a Travelers Insurance survey. That's particularly true during the July 4th holiday, when people often travel hundreds of miles.

Put your destination into the phone before you start, suggested Travelers' Hayes, not after you missed the interchange. Reading a map ahead of time could help imprint the highways you'll need to travel on your brain and thus provide security from panic.

So if you're still driving after this July 4th holiday is over, consider yourself lucky to be among the living. At least 400 people will likely die in car wrecks, many not at all associated with alcohol.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.