With the Fourth of July holiday weekend upon us, you’ve probably already been exposed to one of the holiday’s traditions, as familiar as fireworks or hot dogs: The dangerous driving warning.
On the one hand, there is good reason for this. July 4th is, statistically, the deadliest day on the road (see this study, for example, which notes it was the day with the highest traffic fatalities in the U.S. from 1978 to 2002). In many years, particularly when the 4th is on, for example, a Saturday, July 3rd ranks right behind it. Roughly half the crashes involve alcohol.
But now for the problem. As the New York Times pointed out a few years ago, the death toll on July 4th is high, compared to an average day, but it’s not really that high at all — just 6% higher — compared to the one day of the week that is decidedly not average: Saturday. When you factor in the greatly increased highway traffic, the 4th may actually be safer than the average Saturday, for which we receive no warning.
Perhaps all the warnings and advisories keep the day from being more dangerous than it would be, but this raises the question of the frequency of the warning. As David Klein and Julia Waller observed in a 1970 report for the Department of Transportation, “the ‘holiday death toll’ may give drivers an unjustified feeling of anxiety on holiday weekends and a false sense of security on weekdays.” Yes, the 4th is statistically dangerous, but not much more so than the average Saturday, and it is not orders of magnitude away from the average weekday; essentially, the amount of media coverage of dangerous driving during holidays is well out of proportion with the incidence of dangerous driving spread throughout the year.
This year, of course, the high price of gas and the economic slowdown are showing a silver lining in lower traffic fatalities across many states. If the pattern holds, this will be a “safer” July 4th than typical if only because of reduced exposure.
So here’s my message: Drive safely this Fourth of July, but drive safely on July 5th, July 6th, and so on …