On Memorial Day in 1986, on a rural Midwestern highway, a blue two-door Ford Escort crashed head-on into a four-door Cadillac passing it. The driver of a tractor-trailer traveling behind the Escort slammed on his breaks, but to little effect. The huge rig plowed into the back of the Escort as the car collapsed like a crushed aluminum can. The driver of the Escort died on the scene from massive head and neck trauma. Surviving drivers both reported that the Escort had drifted into the opposite lane of traffic and had not swerved before impact.
The driver of that blue Escort was my mother. I was 14 when she died. The exact cause of the crash was never determined, but it's clear from all the eye-witness reports and forensic analysis of the crash site that it was my mother's fault. For years afterward, I worried every time I got into a car. I obsessed over crash statistics and lectured friends about safe driving. Decades later, I still refuse to get into a car on a holiday weekend, especially this one. But this year, on the 30th anniversary of her death, I wondered, was I wrong to be so fearful of driving? Was I overhyping the danger? What is the actual risk of being injured in a car during the summer months? And is there a way to avoid accidents without avoiding driving altogether?
Summer Driving Really Is More Dangerous
It turns out that I wasn't entirely wrong about the hazards of summer driving; it's far more dangerous than you think.
In the United States, Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of summer. From now until after Labor Day, millions of Americans will hop in their cars and hit the road. They'll be traveling to visit family, to attend holiday parties, to go to weddings, to enjoy a day at the beach, or to go camping or hiking or boating. Thousands of these vacationers, however, will also end up in a vehicular accident on one of our roadways this summer.
July and August are two of the deadliest months, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), with more car crashes and vehicular-related deaths and injuries than any other months. But why is summer driving so dangerous?
There's no easy answer to this question. For one, summertime roads are more congested. All those vacationers have to get to their destinations and most of them will drive. The nice weather also means more bicyclists and pedestrians will be sharing the roads with cars. More people on the roads equates to more chances for something to go wrong. That's just simple math.
July and August are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the deadliest months for young teenage drivers. More teenagers are also behind the wheel during their summer breaks. And teenagers are, typically speaking, far less experienced drivers than their adult counterparts. The youngest of them are also part of Generation Z -- whose attachment to their smartphones is nearly unanimous and almost unconscious. Adults are increasingly just as guilty of checking Facebook messages in a moving motor vehicle, so that equates to a lot more distracted drivers on the road during the summer months. Marry that with more bicycles and pedestrians an you have a formula for disaster.
In fact, the numbers of car crashes has been steadily rising (last year was the worst year for car crashes since the 1970s). The fact that the use of handheld technological devices has also increased during the past decade may just be correlation -- and not causation -- but I doubt the connection is completely random. The slow rise car accidents is likely to be directly related to an increase in distracted driving. The CDC estimates that 8 people will be killed every day due to distracted driving; over 1000 more will be injured. Those numbers add up.
Lowering Your Risk
Is there anything we can do to lower the risk for ourselves? Yes and no. We can't always protect ourselves from other drivers, but what we can do is try to make the roads a little safer by being more mindful drivers ourselves. Some tips from the Department of Transportation:
• Forego sending texts or checking messages when you're behind the wheel, for starters. Talk to your teenagers about the risks of distracted driving.
• Make sure to wear safety belts (a high number of car crash fatalities are still related to a lack of seat belt use).
• Be more careful if you're driving on weekends or in the early evening on most days. Data from NHSTA suggests that Saturdays are the deadliest day of the week and the hour between 6pm - 7pm has more crashes than any other time of day.
• If it's raining, slow down and watch out for hydroplaning. We're all hyper vigilant in the winter months about snow and ice, but wet roads can be equally dangerous. Just because it's warm out, doesn't mean that the roads are always "safe."
• Get your car checked out before a big trip and check your tire pressure. Blowouts are more likely in hotter weather.
I can't bring my mother back and I'll always be a little afraid of driving during the summer months, but I won't let that stop me from enjoying a trip to the beach or two. But knowing the real risks will make me more vigilant. My hope is that it won't take a crash or losing a loved one for you to be a more mindful driver too.
Have a happy and safe summer!