Summer Can Be a Bummer

Trying to relax too hard can be dangerous behind the wheel

America is about to crash into its busiest vacation period of the year, but let's not take the word "crash" too literally. Though summer is generally thought to be a season of relaxation, a new survey has spotted a number of areas in which the season can cause stress, road rage and other dangerous situations. Becoming aware of the trouble signs and warding them off could spell the difference between a pleasant vacation and a potentially tragic one.

One dangerous element to look out for is fatigue. A study conducted by Progressive, a leading Internet insurance provider, showed that fatigue plays a major role in summer driving behavior. While most people go on vacation to relax and get away from stress, it seems that their zealousness to accomplish that actually causes stress. Some 57 percent of respondents said they were more likely to drive when overtired or fatigued while driving home from a weekend getaway. In addition, 59 percent of people reported that they were more likely to drive when they shouldn't have because they wanted to get to a summer getaway in one night.

Fatigue is, of course, a significant but much overlooked factor in traffic accidents. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and as reported in a previous Driving Today feature, drowsiness is the primary causal factor in 100,000 police-reported crashes each year, crashes that resulted in 76,000 injuries and 1,500 deaths. While that seems like a significant menace, the NHTSA figures might well underestimate the extent of the problem. The NHTSA estimates mean that drowsy driving represents one to three percent of all police-reported crashes and four percent of fatalities, but other experts suggest the problem might be even bigger. A United Kingdom study concluded that as many as 20 percent of police-reported crashes were sleep-related, and an Australian study pegged the figure at six percent. No matter what study you subscribe to, it is clear that fatigue represents an obvious safety hazard. So in your quest to get in as much vacation as you can, don't scrimp on the rest you need to get you and your family to your vacation destination and back home safely. Pay Attention to Driving

A danger situation closely related to driver fatigue is driver distraction. NHTSA says that driver inattention was the primary cause of one million accidents last year, and contributors to inattention are sleepiness and fatigue. When Progressive asked its survey respondents what was most likely to take their attention off the road while driving in the summer, the top answer was fatigue, cited by 34 percent. Distraction number two was "talking on the cell phone" (17 percent), and number three was "singing along with the radio/music playing in the car" (16 percent). Some telephone companies are now running commercials urging cell phone users to park when speaking on the phone or to avoid making complicated or stressful calls while driving, but as yet the recording industry has not begun a campaign to limit in-car singing.

Number four among distractions was "getting angry at other drivers while in heavy traffic" (12 percent), which is but a symptom of a widely discussed problem these days: road rage. The study presented other disturbing statistics regarding that phenomenon. Forty-nine percent of those surveyed said the most aggravating time to drive during the summer was on Friday evenings on their way to a weekend getaway, followed by returning from a trip on Sunday evening (27 percent) and returning from a weekend getaway on Monday morning (19 percent). In essence, the problem exits going and coming. And getting back in the regular routine doesn't seem to help much either. Forty-eight percent of respondents reported experiencing road rage while driving to work in rush hour traffic during the summer. After eyeballing the statistics one might conclude a lot of drivers are pretty angry most of the time.

Having children in the car was noted as the number five cause of driving distraction with 10 percent saying this was a problem for them. Children also seem at risk from other behaviors spotted by the study. For example, despite a media blitz that warns parents of the dangers, more than one-fifth of consumers reported taking their kids out of their car seats while driving on a summer trip. The number one reason reported for this patently reckless behavior was "driving only a short distance." Apparently lacking maternal instinct, men were twice as likely as women to drive in the summertime with their child out of their child safety seat if they were driving only a short distance.

Having kids in the car also was discovered to contribute to fatigue. In fact, families with children were six times more likely to drive home from a long day trip while fatigued during the summer than those people without children. Women apparently bear the brunt of the child-induced fatigue. The study reported women were twice as likely as men to drive while overtired on their way home from a long day trip during the summer with kids in the car.

Finally, the survey pointed to some surprising results regarding another well-publicized hazard: drinking and driving. Some 26 percent of respondents reported driving when they shouldn't due to alcohol consumption at summer barbecues. And as with the problem of eschewing child safety seats, 23 percent said they would be more likely to drive after drinking at a summer barbecue if they did not have very far to drive to get home.

With the heavy summer driving season upon us, it only makes sense to make a little extra time and effort to avoid these obvious, well-documented but still-important driving hazards. Very simply, don't drink and drive. Don't drive when you are angry, fatigued or distracted, and by all means, all make certain your precious children are properly secured in approved child safety seats. Vacations are happy times. Don't let yours end in tragedy.

More than 400 consumers participated in the online survey at progressive. The Internet survey was conducted from May 16 through May 24.

-- Tom Ripley

Tom Ripley reports on the international auto scene, art and human relationships from his home in Villeperce, France.

by Tom Ripley for DrivingToday