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Americans underestimate risks of driving on summer holidays and rural roads

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Each year, Independence Day arrives with an array of festivities that make us vulnerable to a number of potential hazards: bug bites, burns from backyard grills, food poisoning from cookouts, and injuries from fireworks. But driving? The thought of possibly getting in a car accident at this time of year probably doesn’t even cross your mind. If you’re like most Americans, you don’t get white-knuckled behind the wheel until faced with a drive in wintry whiteout conditions.

In fact, a recent survey of more than 1,200 U.S. drivers conducted by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Excellence in Rural Safety (CERS) showed that 83 percent think winter is "the most dangerous season to be driving on rural roadways." By contrast, only 8 percent of survey takers chose summer as the most dangerous driving period.

It turns out that the number of fatal car crashes peak in the summer months of July and August, according to a 2005 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). What’s more, July 3rd and 4th have consistently topped the list of the four deadliest days of the year to be on the road. NHTSA reports that Fourth of July crashes are frequently speeding- or alcohol-related.

"Americans’ sense of seasonal driving risk is skewed," Tom Horan of CERS said in a prepared statement. "We are wary of winter driving, but let our guard down during summer holidays, when fatalities are most likely to occur."

Of the approximately 37,000 fatal car crashes that occurred in the U.S. in 2008, more than half took place on rural roads, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The recent CERS survey focused on rural roads because crashes in those areas have such a high fatality rate despite the fact that only about 20 percent of the population lives in a rural area. The survey results suggest that this may be the case because motorists report feeling safer on rural roads because there is less traffic. Rural drivers also tend to feel more relaxed and sleepy than urban drivers, and are more likely to engage in behaviors such as eating or talking on a cell phone that distract them from the roadway.

CERS has also unveiled a new version of their interactive Web site, a Google Maps-based system where users can find information on highway fatalities nationwide. The site enables users to enter an address to see all of the deadly crashes that have occurred in the region during the past eight years.

"As drivers get ready for the holiday weekend, they can use this tool to learn about the deadliest spots on their routes," Horan said. "That awareness helps drivers focus on staying safe."

Image courtesy of iStockPhoto/YinYang

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  1. 1. loveslawyerjokes 2:45 pm 07/2/2010

    Interesting statistics but no thoughtful analysis. The amount of traffic and slow speeds in urban areas mean that fewer will die from the innumerable accidents. Freeway traffic jams prevent deaths also. Rural drivers tend to drive larger vehicles, which are deadly to small cars. Rural drivers also have to share shoulderless roads with large trucks. I also doubt that pedestrian deaths from urban vehicles were included. There is also the dangerous nature of rural roads such as mountain passes, sharp curves and steep grades. More people die here because of drunk drivers, wildlife and rockslides than due to cellphones, eating or falling asleep. I was 2 seconds from being buried by a snow avalanche this April and minutes from being crushed by falling boulders in Glenwood Canyon (Colorado River) the previous month. The statistic I would like to see is how many of the rural deaths were urban drivers/passengers who were out of their element or brought their city attitude to the country. Don’t blame it on us…we actually have manners, on the road and off.

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  2. 2. podboq 9:47 pm 07/3/2010

    Get a grip dude, I don’t see any BLAME in the article. BTW, yes, pedestrian deaths are shown on the maps on the linked website, run your mouth AFTER you educate yourself… on second thought, don’t.

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  3. 3. loveslawyerjokes 2:33 pm 07/4/2010

    Stay in your parents’ basement in the city, punk, while I grow your food, dude. I have 2 B’s, 2 M’s and a Dr. Have you done grageated 6th grade? Easy to attack me with your pussy text language when you’re not in front of me. I throw around 80 pound bales of hay every day. I’m sure your thumb is strong from texting.

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  4. 4. fixerdave 1:45 am 07/6/2010

    Um… so, what percentage, by mile, of all roads are classed as "rural" for this study? What about something more meaningful like comparing miles travelled on rural verses urban? I mean, if half the fatal accidents are on rural but 75% of the car-miles are on rural roads, then aren’t rural roads safer per mile?

    How about the kills-self verses kills-others ratio? If there’s a high ratio of kills-self on rural, then maybe it’s the yahoos going out the the country, away from the patrolled highways, looking to see just how fast they can go. I’ve no stats to back it up but I bet more bikers around here die in the back-country twisties, alone, than do in the city, and that’s including the cagers making left-turns in front of bikers at city intersections (which is probably the #2 killer of bikers). If that’s the case, then having Mom and Pop worry about their safety on rural roads is rather pointless… they won’t be going 140Mph on some machine that only an insane person would consider riding. Said insane rider is going that fast because it’s dangerous, because death is real. That’s the whole point.

    Counting these people in your statistics or not factoring in miles travelled will just skew the results, making it appear that rural roads are more dangerous. Maybe the common-sense answer, winter driving is more dangerous, is more meaningful than the bare stats. Of course more people die in the summer on rural roads. In the summer, idiots and crazy people come out… they aren’t out in the winter, not as much anyway. For your average commuter, it probably is a lot more dangerous in the winter.

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  5. 5. DestinyBrown 6:24 am 04/20/2015

    Thanks for sharing a helpful information. well it’s everyone’s responsibility to be safe while on road and should know about the road in first place. If the roads are not good for long drive in summer then we should keep in mind all these and be careful before we start any journey. Most important is go for servicing your vehicle before going to a Road Trip

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