July 4th: How to waste money and endanger people

Pollution from freeways may cause autism iStockphoto.com

(MoneyWatch) Don't you hate getting stuck on the road behind a B-type personality? You know the type. They're the people who drive just a few miles an hour over the speed limit, not bothering to tailgate or weave between lanes to get another several inches ahead of the traffic.

Thank heavens that holidays like the 4th of July put those B-type drivers in their place - home. The freeways are owned by aggressive drivers on Independence Day - some of them under the influence and others on a cell phone - and emergency rooms are on alert to prove it. Ask any emergency room doctor and he'll tell you that a few random patients land in the emergency room from messing with the wrong fireworks, but the bulk of emergency room visits this weekend are from traumatic accidents. Aggressive, drunk and reckless driving is the root cause.

You, too, could be an accident waiting to happen. Here's how -- and how much it could cost you.

Forget the speed limit: Sure, the speed limit is 65 and the flow of traffic is going 70. But if you weave strategically between lanes, you may be able to hit 80 and (if you make it to your destination at all) be at the barbeque three or four minutes before that horrified family of four that you cut off on the highway. By the way, exceeding the posted speed limit by more than 10 miles an hour and weaving in and out of traffic is often enough to score you a "reckless driving" ticket, which typically costs between $500 and $1,000 for the first offense and can cause you to temporarily lose your driver's license. Oh, and according to an article in Forbes, a reckless driving ticket will also boost your insurance premiums by about 22%. If you really want to get to the barbeque early, you might think about leaving the house a little earlier. It's safer and considerably cheaper.

Use your cell phone: The 4th of July holiday is the official launch of summer vacation season, where millions of tourists hit the road and create all sorts of traffic hazards as they try to negotiate unfamiliar highways, toll roads and conditions. That's just the time to pick up the phone and have a long animated conversation with someone who, doubtless, can't wait the half hour before you get home to chat with you.

Who needs two hands and undivided attention to navigate slam-on-the-breaks traffic, anyway? Studies indicate that driving while talking on a cell phone slows your reactions almost as much as driving drunk. In states like California, where using a cell-phone without a hands-free device is a traffic violation, that call can land you a $160 ticket, too. It's just possible that your friend would be willing to wait for your call after all.

Bet your fate on the car in front of you: You have the lightning quick reactions of an Olympic athlete and that's why you know you can drive three inches from the bumper of the car in front of you, because the moment that driver hits the brakes, you'll hit the brakes. You are just that fast.

But, what if the driver in front of you doesn't have Olympic-athlete reactions and actually slams into the car in front of him without braking at all? Well, then, you (or whatever is left of you) will be in that car's back seat. Your car, your career, maybe your whole life rests on that other guy's reaction. Don't know him or her well enough to fully understand his driving prowess? It might make sense to give that car a little distance - maybe even enough distance so you can see more than his bumper, like the traffic in front of him.

Party hearty: It's no problem to get back on the road after a day of partying at the beach, right? After all, a few beers - okay, maybe a 6-pack - isn't going to impair your ability to drive. Admittedly, experts on drunk driving will tell you that things like fatigue, gender and body weight can have a huge impact on the number of drinks it takes to cause impairment. And many people would be surprised at how little it takes to exceed the 0.08% alcohol level that can get you arrested for drunk driving.

A woman with a small frame, for instance, could teeter over the 0.08 edge with just two glasses of wine, according to the blood alcohol calculator posted by the University of Oklahoma police. After three glasses of wine, this woman would be so far over the legal intoxication limit, that she would face criminal penalties - not just a DUI ticket -  if she got behind the wheel. Men, on average, can handle a little more. But little is the operative word - especially if you're drowsy after a long day of fun and fireworks. It typically takes four drinks to get a 200-pound man over the legal limit. 

But you should also know that police departments are increasingly pursuing "wet" driving citations for those driving badly, but who are below the legal limit for alcohol. "Wet" driving used to be the way to plea-bargain your way down from a drunk driving conviction. Now, it's going the other way. You may not be legally drunk, but if your blood alcohol level shows you're in the vicinity, you could face a far more serious traffic violation than the one you were stopped for. 

By the way, one DUI will not only cost you a massive ticket, and potentially the suspension of your driver's license, it will raise your insurance rates by about 19%. Consider drinking two glasses of water for every alcoholic drink. It will slow you down and, hopefully, allow you to survive the 4th ticket and accident free.

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