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Status Report, Vol. 39, No. 6 | July 3, 2004 Subscribe

Fourth of July is the day with the most crash deaths

School's out, the office is closed, and more people than usual take to the roads. So it's not surprising that holidays dominate the list of days when the most motor vehicle crash deaths occur. What's interesting is how the pattern of deaths varies throughout the year.

"It's important to note that, while more deaths do occur on some of the holidays, the toll of fatalities is relentless every day, all year long," says Allan Williams, the Institute's chief scientist. The average during the 17 years from 1986 through 2002 was 117 deaths per day.

As Americans celebrate independence on the 4th of July each year, an average of 161 people die in motor vehicle crashes. This is 12 more deaths than the average on any other single day of the year and about 40 percent more crash deaths than occur on an average day.

The second worst day for crash deaths during the 17-year span was July 3. July 2 also was among the list of 10 days with the most deaths.

Institute researchers analyzed data from the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System, an annual census of fatal crashes on U.S. roads. The motor vehicle deaths were sorted by month, day, and hour. The period 1986-2002 was chosen to balance the effects of travel on the weekends. Researchers also gathered information on the characteristics of the people and vehicles involved in the fatal crashes.

Six of the 10 days with the most deaths were holidays or near holidays. Besides the high toll on July 2-4, there was December 23, January 1, and September 2. The other four days on the "worst" list were in August.

Deaths by month, day, and hour

More miles are traveled in August than any other month, and August averaged the most crash deaths per day at 132. However, October and December averaged the highest death rate per billion miles traveled (19.1). January and February averaged the lowest number of vehicle miles traveled and deaths per day (98).

The day of week with the lowest average fatality count was Tuesday (95 deaths), followed by Mondays and Wednesdays. Far more deaths (158) occurred on Saturdays.

More of the deaths occurred during the afternoon and evening, peaking from 5 to 7 p.m. with an average of 6.6 deaths per hour. The fewest average number of deaths occurred between 4 and 6 a.m.

Motor vehicle crash deaths, 1986-2002, by month
Month Deaths Average per day Miles traveled (billions) Deaths per billion miles
January 51,694 98 2,996 17.3
February 47,247 98 2,860 16.5
March 54,645 104 3,328 16.4
April  55,710 109 3,328  16.7
May 62,426 118 3,534  17.7
June 64,152 126 3,526  18.2
July  68,099 129  3,658  18.6
August 69,731 132  3,677 19.0
September 63,965 125 3,366  19.0
October 66,553 126 3,477 19.1
November 61,145 120 3,237  18.9
December 62,071 118  3,258 19.1
Motor vehicle crash deaths, 1986-2002, by hour
Hour  Average per hour
midnight to 1 a.m.  5.4
1 a.m. to 2 a.m. 5.5
2 a.m. to 3 a.m. 5.3
3 a.m. to 4 a.m. 3.4
4 a.m. to 5 a.m. 2.6
5 a.m. to 6 a.m.  2.8
6 a.m. to 7 a.m. 3.6
7 a.m. to 8 a.m. 3.7
8 a.m. to 9 a.m. 3.2
9 a.m. to 10 a.m. 3.2
10 a.m. to 11 a.m. 3.6
11 a.m. to noon  4.0
Noon to 1 p.m. 4.4
1 p.m. to 2 p.m. 4.8
2 p.m. to 3 p.m. 5.5
3 p.m. to 4 p.m.  6.3
4 p.m. to 5 p.m. 6.3
5 p.m. to 6 p.m.  6.6
6 p.m. to 7 p.m.  6.6
7 p.m. to 8 p.m.  6.0
8 p.m. to 9 p.m. 5.9
9 p.m. to 10 p.m.  6.0
10 p.m. to 11 p.m. 5.8
11 p.m. to midnight  5.8
Motor vehicle crash deaths, 1986-2002, by day
Day Average per day
Sunday 132
Monday 98
Tuesday 95
Wednesday 98
Thursday 105
Friday  133
Saturday 158

Highest single-day count: 252 on 8/9/1986
Lowest single-day count: 45 on 3/2/1992

Days of year with most crash deaths, 1986-2002

Total deaths

Average per day

July 4  2,743  161
July 3 2,534  149
December 23  2,470  145
August 3 2,413  142
January 1 2,411  142
August 6 2,387  140
August 4 2,365 139
August 12 2,359  139
July 2  2,340  138
September 2  2,336 137

Toll of crash deaths doesn't resonate

"An average of 117 deaths per day is the equivalent of a major commercial airline disaster occurring every day of the 6,209 consecutive days of the 17-year span we analyzed," Williams points out. "But there's a big difference in how society approaches these losses. When a plane goes down it's big news and there's a concentrated effort to find ways to prevent future crashes. But the toll of highway deaths doesn't attract the same attention."

Fatal motor vehicle crashes don't resonate like airline crashes in part because, taken one at a time, they aren't as catastrophic. Ninety-four percent of the motor vehicle deaths during 1986-2002 occurred in crashes in which one or two people were killed.

"If newspapers printed headlines like '100 people died in crashes yesterday,' and these headlines ran every day, then the magnitude of this problem wouldn't be so obscured in the mind of the public," Williams says. However, nationwide tallies of deaths aren't available until months after the crashes occur.

Crash deaths On July 4, 2002

Eighteen-year-old Danielle Mooney, driving a red Ford Escort (left), was trying to swat a bug that had flown in the window when her car hit a guardrail and rolled over, sliding down an embankment. Danielle died, but three other occupants including a toddler survived the crash near Elyria, Ohio. On the same day in Colorado, rider Gregg Haberland, 40, died when an oncoming car swerved into his lane and struck his motorcycle. A total of 144 people died in crashes on that day, July 4, 2002. An average of 161 people die in crashes every 4th of July.

Deaths by type of crash

About three of every four motor vehicle crash fatalities are occupants of passenger vehicles. Another 13 percent of the deaths are pedestrians, and 7 percent are motorcyclists. While July 4 was the day with the highest average number of passenger vehicle occupant and motor cyclist deaths during 1986-2002, January 1 and October 31 (Halloween) were when the most pedestrians were killed.

Alcohol is a factor in a greater proportion of crash deaths on both the 4th of July and New Year's Day. Forty-one percent of the deaths on the 4th and 51 percent on January 1 involved high blood alcohol concentrations. These proportions compare with 33 percent on December 25 and January 8 (days in close proximity that aren't associated with New Year's) and 31 percent on June 27 and July 11. On both July 4 and January 1, a higher percentage of the fatally injured pedestrians had high blood alcohol concentrations, compared with drivers of passenger vehicles in which occupant deaths occurred (43 percent versus 40 percent on July 4; 58 percent versus 50 percent on January 1).

"However you tally the deaths or sort them by contributing factors, the total of 727,438 human lives lost over 17 years represents a huge burden on the public health," Williams concludes.

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