Risk of death on highways rises during July 4 holiday

A new study proves what many drivers and law enforcement officials already believed: that the rate of highway fatalities, including alcohol-related fatalities, rises significantly during the annual Fourth of July holiday across the United States and even more so in South Dakota.

The rate of highway deaths during the Independence Day holiday travel period in the U.S. rises by 27% compared with comparable non-holiday time frames, and jumps by 46% in South Dakota, the study found. Meanwhile, the data analysis showed that alcohol-related driving fatalities jumped by 30% across the country and by 67% in South Dakota during the holiday period, the fourth-highest rate increase in the country.

The study – which examined data from 165,000 fatal crashes across the country from 2013-17 – found that a single three-hour time frame is the deadliest during the Fourth of July holiday travel period in America: from 9 p.m. to midnight on July 4.

“If you think about the nature of the Fourth of July holiday, people are out drinking and watching fireworks and being out later, and they’re more distracted behind the wheel than normal,” said Brian Beltz, lead researcher for the California-based data analysis firm 1point21 Interactive. “There’s more people on the roads, and they’re out later and it turns out more are impaired than usual on the roads.”

Beltz performed the study on behalf of a law firm that sought data on highway fatalities. Beltz said he looked at national data to show trends that would not be revealed in state data that may not be statistically valid due to low numbers.

The American Automobile Association predicts record levels of travel on U.S. roadways during the 2019 Fourth of July holiday. Two days before Independence Day, traffic had already picked up on some South Dakota highways, including this stretch of Interstate 90 in Meade County. (Photo: Bart Pfankuch, South Dakota News Watch)

In examining fatal-crash data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 2013-17, Beltz found that 1,923 fatal crashes resulted in 2,110 deaths across the country during the Fourth of July holiday period, which ranges from 30 hours in some years to 102 hours and allows for travel before and after the actual holiday. South Dakota had 12 holiday period fatalities during that five-year time frame, state data show.

Beltz broke down the data for each day of the year, then compared the holiday period with other days to create a percentage increase in fatalities during the holiday travel period. The data Beltz used matches up with fatality records compiled by the state of South Dakota.

Lee Axdahl, director of the South Dakota Office of Highway Safety, said summertime holidays such as the Fourth of July and the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends have a confluence of events that make roadway travel more dangerous than at other times.

Particularly during the Fourth of July holiday, when local and non-local family gatherings are common, far more motorists are on the road overall and some may not be familiar with their surroundings, Axdahl said.

High traffic counts seem highly likely across the country this year, with the American Automobile Association predicting that nearly 49 million people – which would set an annual record – may take to the roads during the Fourth of July holiday this year.

Compounding the risks associated with high volumes of travelers is a propensity of people to drink alcohol or use drugs at holiday parties, barbecues and fireworks shows, Axdahl said. Once an impaired person gets behind the wheel, the risk level rises sharply for that person, his or her passengers, and people in other vehicles, Axdahl said.

“When you’re impaired, the opportunity to make a bad decision is exponentially increased,” he said. “It’s not unusual to see an alcohol-related crash that involved high speeds, or to see an alcohol-related crash where a seat belt isn’t used.”

Lee Axdahl, director of the South Dakota Office of Highway Safety, said fatalities are down so far this year in South Dakota and he urges drivers to be cautious on state roads that are sure to be busy over the Fourth of July holiday period. (Photo: Courtesy S.D. Office of Highway Safety)
"When you make bad decisions, you may not be the person that gets seriously injured or killed in the crash, and it could be someone else or someone else’s family. These things happen in a heartbeat, and nobody wakes up and says today is my day.” – Lee Axdahl, director of S.D. Office of Highway Safety

South Dakota crash data support the idea that impaired drivers are not only more likely to crash but are also more likely to die. In 2017, alcohol was a factor in only 5.6% of total crashes but played a role in 40.5% of fatal crashes. Fatal wrecks involving impairment were also concentrated in the 21-39 age group, with 27 of the 49 recorded alcohol-related deaths falling into that age range in 2017.

Axdahl said the state Highway Patrol would have more officers on duty during the holiday period, and officials from city and county law enforcement agencies say they also are increasing patrol efforts.

Yet Axdahl said good decision-making by all who take to the road – those who imbibe and those who do not – is critical to reducing the risk of injury or death during the upcoming Fourth of July travel period that starts at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, July 3, and ends at 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, July 7.

Axdahl noted that his research shows that at any given time in South Dakota, one of 17 drivers encountered on the highway has a DUI conviction on his or her record.

“When you make bad decisions, you may not be the person that gets seriously injured or killed in the crash, and it could be someone else or someone else’s family,” he said. “These things happen in a heartbeat, and nobody wakes up and says today is my day.”

Beltz said his research also showed that pedestrian fatalities increased by 46% during the Fourth of July holiday time frame, and that half of those deaths took place in a four-hour period starting at 9 p.m. on July 4. South Dakota has reported no pedestrian fatalities during the holiday period over the past decade, according to state traffic data.

In South Dakota in 2018, during a Fourth of July holiday period that was only 30 hours because it did not include a weekend, the state saw 57 motor vehicle accidents, six of which were alcohol-related, according to Tony Mangan, spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety. From 2008-2017, the state saw 19 fatal crashes and 20 deaths as well as 475 injuries from wrecks during those Fourth of July periods.

This chart shows the percentage of highway fatalities that are alcohol-related for the five states with the highest percentages in the nation with national ranking, and among South Dakota neighboring states from 2013-17.

State                   Fatalities   Alcohol-related           %/Rank

North Dakota     7                7                                  100%/No. 1

Montana            11              9                                   82%/No. 2

Alaska                7                5                                  71%/No. 3

South Dakota     9                6                                  67%/No. 4

Oregon               35              23                                 66%/No. 5

Wyoming           10              5                                  50%/No. 16

Iowa                   25              12                                 48%/No. 19

Nebraska            11              5                                  45%/No. 21

Minn.                 21              8                                  38%/No. 32

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Alcohol was determined to be a factor in a horrific wreck that occurred during the holiday period near Yankton last year. According to a state crash report, five people were killed in a head-on crash on South Dakota Highway 50 about three miles east of Yankton around 1:20 a.m. on July 4, 2018, when a car fleeing from police crossed into an oncoming lane.

Two men from Sioux Falls died in the fleeing vehicle, and a married couple from Yankton and a 10-year-old girl passenger in the oncoming vehicle also died in the wreck. Mangan said an investigation showed the fleeing vehicle driver was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the crash.

Lt. Dave McIntire of the Sioux Falls Police Department said his agency had not responded to any fatalities in the Fourth of July holiday period over the past several years.

McIntire said increased local traffic during the holiday, especially after fireworks shows that end after dark, is the most likely cause for an increased risk of vehicle collisions during the holiday. He also pointed to distracted driving by people using their phones to text, talk or search online behind the wheel as another risk factor for holiday drivers.

McIntire said he’d seen a culture shift away from drunken driving, but added that Sioux Falls Police will have 10 additional officers on the road during the holiday this year to watch for drivers who are impaired for any reason, including the use of opiates or methamphetamines. Patrol officers are trained to recognize the effects of drug use on drivers, McIntire said.

The launch of low-priced taxi services such as Lyft and Uber in the Sioux Falls market over the past couple years has also led to a drop in DUI arrests in the city, McIntire said. “The advent of Lyft and Uber, with very cheap and affordable ways to get home and the great convenience of those; we saw a noticeable drop in DUI arrests,” he said. “A cab was an expensive option back in the day, and now you can get a ride across town for seven bucks.”

Lt. Dustin Morrison of the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office said law enforcement agencies are well aware that alcohol impairment and other distractions make roadway travel dangerous for all motorists during the Fourth of July holiday period.

The agency is upping its patrol presence by about 15 percent over the holiday and the following weekend this year, Morrison said.

Sheriff’s officers will be “proactive” in seeking out drivers who may be impaired or a danger to themselves or others, Morrison said. That typically involves watching for traffic violations such as speeding, failure to maintain a lane or not obeying traffic signals, since impaired drivers tend to break traffic laws more frequently than sober drivers, Morrison said.

“Obviously, if somebody is speeding, then we’ll address the speeding and sometimes we look for other violations,” Morrison said. “By enforcing traffic laws on the books, if people are out there driving drunk, those things will be more prominent.”

Despite increased risks during summer holidays, Morrison said most drivers are not impaired and tend to drive safely.

“What we find is that a lot of people are being responsible,” he said. “The statistics show the tragedies, but there’s still a lot of people out there making good decisions and designating a sober driver.”

Holiday road risks in South Dakota

Here is a snapshot of crashes with injury or fatality, total injuries and total fatalities from six holiday travel periods in South Dakota in 2017.

Holiday              I/F Crashes         Deaths       Injuries

Memorial Day    24                       6                30

Fourth of July    51                        3                70

Labor Day          23                        1                 32

Thanksgiving    33                        3                38

Christmas          21                        2                30

New Year’s         26                        0               35

Source: S.D. Department of Public Safety

Capt. Joe Bosman of the Minnehaha County Sheriff’s Office said adding extra officers during high-traffic holidays increases the likelihood of catching impaired drivers but also allows other officers to respond to calls not related to traffic or DUI enforcement.

“It allows officers, especially for our agency, which is still responsible for answering 911 calls for service, to focus on traffic enforcement actions and not be bouncing from call to call on things like fireworks violations or car-versus-deer accidents,” Bosman said. “Otherwise, they’re tied up on other things that reduce their focus on looking for detection of impaired drivers.”

Bosman urged all drivers to be cautious and focus on safety while on the road during the holiday period, including following the speed limit, staying aware of drivers around them and taking extra care at intersections.

“We educate the public and make them aware that we’re going to be out in extra force and that it’s not worth it for you to hurt someone else or your family members or yourself,” Bosman said. “But it’s also about not being placed under arrest, which can be devastating for people.”

Axdahl, the state highway safety director, said traffic statistics show fewer deaths have occurred on state roads so far this year compared with last, and he is hopeful the state will see a safe Fourth of July holiday.

Axdahl, who is getting married on July 4, told News Watch he would ensure that all participants in his wedding have a sober ride home if they drink alcohol during the celebration. “Everybody that will be there will have a designated driver,” he said.

To access the full 1point21 Interactive crash analysis, click here.