​Driving on July 4th is ugly, but you'll do it anyway

Gridlock could well be your passenger this weekend if you -- and 36 million of your closest friends -- travel during the July 4th holiday.

Travel by car is expected to be up 1.2 percent over last year's Independence Day, with 5 million more Americans hitting the road compared with the Memorial Day holiday just a few weeks ago, according to AAA, the nation's largest motoring and travel organization. "We are well on our way for 2016 to be a record-breaking year for summertime travel," said AAA president and CEO Marshall Doney, in a statement.

The celebrations, unfortunately, often come at a price. As more people take to the road, and with many drivers going faster due to higher speed limits, the number of vehicle accidents, injuries and deaths are likely to rise.

And the July 4th holiday, which the AAA defines as extending from Thursday, June 30, through Monday, July 4, could be the worst of the lot. July 4 ranks as the deadliest single day of the year to be on the road, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

"On average, more people die in motor vehicle crashes on Independence Day than any other day of the year," the IIHS said.

Every July 4th an average of 118.4 lives are lost in crashes, making it the most "consistently deadly day across the five-year study period," said the highway safety group's loss data institute. This edges out New Year's Day on January 1, and amounts to 28 more deaths than the overall average daily toll from 2010 to 2014. Motorcyclists sustain 26 deaths during the mid-summer mayhem.

Statistics aside, just what are your chances of a fender-bender or road-rage rumble while on the road? Pretty good. Exasperated drivers stuck in traffic may use access or service lanes, hug bumpers or tailgate, and generally become even more obnoxious as conditions worsen and temperatures outside rise.

Alcohol helps fuel a lot of bad driving -- it's not accidental that the two worst driving days of the year both foster a lot of imbibing. Nearly half of all deaths on July 4 involved at least one driver, pedestrian or bicyclist who was one toke over the line with a blood alcohol level of at least 0.08, the legal limit, according to the IIHS.

Allstate's online insurer, esurance, said at least 13 percent of the people you may encounter on the road are or have been drinking, a figure that's likely to rise on weekends and holidays. Driving late at night could help you avoid traffic, but four times more fatal crashes occur in the darkness.

So given all the negatives, will holiday celebrants get their motor runnin' and head out on the highway?

Sure they will, said Sanjay Sidhwani, head of marketing analytics for Synchrony Financial, a consumer financing company that conducts surveys about what consumers are thinking.

With improving bankrolls, 68 percent of the 1,000 adults surveyed said they plan to take a summer vacation, up 10 percent from last year. And, with lower gas prices -- down 47 cents a gallon from a year ago and the lowest in a decade -- 69 percent of them are planning to drive. Only 20 percent intend to travel internationally.

In contrast, 41 percent, particularly younger people, said they'll take camping trips, and nearly 40 percent said they'll head for the beach, according to Synchrony. Most are looking to go no further than about two hours.

Vacations, including road trips with the family, are becoming much more important.

"Americans are not placing as much emphasis on the possession of things as on gathering experience through travel and entertainment," said Sidhwani. If someone wins the lottery, the first thing they say they will do is take a vacation, he said.

So knowing the grim statistics, is Sidhwani staying home on July 4?

Not a chance. After picking up his son at soccer camp he's heading to the beach, a two-hour trip.

  • 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.