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July 4 weekend may be deadliest in years for drivers

With highway fatalities already rising after years of steady decline, the upcoming July Fourth holiday could be a particularly deadly one.
Heavy traffic clogs the 101 Freeway in Los Angeles. (Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty)
Heavy traffic clogs the 101 Freeway in Los Angeles.

With highway fatalities already rising after years of steady decline, the upcoming July Fourth holiday could be a particularly deadly one.

As many as 409 Americans could be killed on the road during the long Independence Day weekend, with another 49,500 injured, forecasts the National Safety Council. If the safety group's prediction proves accurate, that would be the highest tally for a Fourth of July holiday since 2008.

"Drivers always need to be vigilant, but this weekend, focus on the safety of your family," said Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. "A few precautions can help ensure a memorable weekend. Spending the holiday with family is preferable to spending time in the ER."

Several factors are likely to contribute to the deadly total, according to the NSC. For one thing, this year the Fourth falls on a Saturday. And weekend holidays tend to have higher levels of traffic, more partying and, in general, a larger number of crashes.

On average, there are 37% more highway fatalities on July 4 than the average July day, according to a study of federal accident data. And when traffic increases, so does the death toll, according to the NSC.

Traffic has been rising as the U.S. continues to emerge from the Great Recession. American roads have generally become much safer during the past four decades. Annual fatalities that hit a peak of 54,589 in 1972 fell 40% to 32,719 by 2013, the latest year for which complete statistics are available.

But based on preliminary data, the NSC reported in May that highway fatalities surged by 8% during the six months from Oct. 1, 2014, through March 31 of this year — and 11 percent during the last half of that period.

"Summer is typically a high-exposure period with lots of miles driven and several long holiday weekends," noted Hersman, warning that the sudden upturn could worsen.

The National Safety Council suggested a variety of ways motorists can avoid becoming part of the holiday statistics:

  • Buckle up. Seatbelts are expected to save 155 lives during the three-day holiday, and another 99 Americans would be saved if they also buckled up, the NSC estimated;
  • And place children in appropriate safety seats, something that is credited with saving 100s of young lives a year.
  • Reduce your speed. More speeding-related fatalities occur during summer months;
  • Avoid distracted driving behavior, like using a cellphone or texting while behind the wheel;
  • And, of course, don't drink and drive. Driving under the influence is the single largest cause of motor vehicle fatalities.