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Americans underestimate risks of driving on summer holidays and rural roads


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

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

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