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Wednesday holiday means fewer U.S. traffic fatalities

The first Independence Day fell on Thursday, July 4, 1776 - proving the Founding Fathers knew how to set the stage for a four-day weekend. But 231 years later, the holiday falls on a Wednesday.

This timing may have put a damper on 2007's beach parties, but it probably will save lives. With July 4 falling on Wednesday, safety authorities suggest that fewer Americans will be killed in car accidents.

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The number of fatalities will "likely be less than if July 4 was on a weekend or adjacent to a weekend," said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

It's not that American drivers suddenly become more sensible on July 4 just because it falls on Wednesday. The nation's birthday stands unchallenged as the deadliest day of the year on U.S. roads, according to data from 1978 to 2002 compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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The National Safety Council is projecting 203 fatalities for the period that started at 6 p.m. last night and will continue through 11:59 p.m. tonight - a day and a quarter. The last time July 4 fell on a Wednesday, in 2001, 173 people died in a comparable period.

That's high for a Wednesday - typically one of the safer days of the week - but it's less bloody than 2000's July 4, when the holiday fell on a Tuesday and wrapped up a 4 1/4 -day weekend. That year's holiday death toll was 683.

Neither the government's nor the council's statistics make it easy to conduct apples-to-apples comparisons. But a breakdown of the number of fatalities per six hours during the holiday period shows that 2001's toll was the lowest from 1995 to 2005. For instance, the Wednesday, July 4, 2001, holiday period had 34.6 deaths per six-hour block; the Tuesday, July 4, 2000, period had 40.2.

Safety council spokeswoman Meredith Morris and Rader said they were confident the midweek holiday saves lives. The main reason: less total travel.

"It's more difficult for people to get away when July 4 is in the middle of the week," Rader said.

The Wednesday Fourth also appears to have a dampening effect on traffic mayhem on July 3 - the second deadliest day of the year on American roads from 1978 to 2002. (New Year's Day was No. 3.)

Ragina Avarella, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the group's surveys showed many holiday travelers planned to leave last Friday. Unlike in other years, July 3 wasn't shaping up as a peak travel day, she said.

Where July 3 last year was the third day of what for many was a booze-soaked four-day weekend, yesterday was simply Tuesday. And Tuesday, overall, is your least likely day to be killed in a traffic accident. (The most-likely day, with no close challenger, is Saturday.)

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No data were available to show how many deaths occur on July 3 when it falls on different days of the week. But it is noteworthy that for the period 1993 to 1997, when that day outranked the Fourth as the most dangerous day, Independence Day never fell on a Wednesday.

Besides the sheer volume of traffic on the road, another reason for the deadliness of the Fourth of July holiday is alcohol. Simply put, people get drunker than at other times of year.

According to the insurance institute, 38.1 percent of people killed on July 4 during the 1995-2005 period had blood-alcohol levels of 0.08 percent or higher. On the comparable days a week before and a week after - June 27 and July 11 - 28 percent were legally drunk.

"It's the day of celebrating and barbecues, and often alcohol is a part of that," Rader said.

But Jackie Pisigna, a bartender at the Cat's Eye Pub in Fells Point, isn't expecting a huge volume of business today.

"I don't think it will be as busy as if it were on a weekend," she said.

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As lethal as the Independence Day holiday can be, it isn't enough to make July the deadliest month on the roads. That distinction goes to August.

A review of 1995-2005 data suggests that 10 of the year's 25 deadliest days fall in August - most of them during the first 10 days when vacation travel is at its peak. For the month, the United States has averaged nearly 129 deaths per day.

August's ascent on the charts is offset by a more welcome long-term trend - the increasing safety of highway travel at Christmas. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dec. 24, 23 and 22 were Nos. 2, 3 and 4 behind July 4 in highway deaths. More recently, only Dec. 23 ranks in the top 25, at No. 11.

And the least deadly month on U.S. roads? Despite snow and ice and winter blues, that honor goes to much-maligned February, with just under 100 deaths a day.

Only six months and 27 days to relative safety.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com


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