Busy roads this weekend

Thanks to reduced gasoline prices, an improving economy and a mid-week July 4, Independence Day holiday travel in North Carolina is expected to increase by 5 percent over last year, according to AAA Carolinas. More than 1 million North Carolinians are expected to fly or drive 50 miles or more away from home for the July 4 holiday, with some combining their holiday with Monday and Tuesday (July 2-3), others with Thursday and Friday (July 5-6).

North Carolinians will find self-serve, regular gasoline 30.9 cents a gallon cheaper than Memorial Day and 49 cents cheaper than last July 4th. The state average is $3.244 with the highest price in Charlotte at $3.331 a gallon and the cheapest in Rocky Mount at $3.188.

South Carolina continues to have the cheapest gasoline in the nation at $2.98.3 cents a gallon.

“We predict slightly more travelers will combine Thursday and Friday as part of their holiday weekend in order to enjoy Independence Day celebration activities, such as Wednesday night fireworks, encouraging travelers to stay at their destination overnight,” said David E. Parsons, president and CEO of AAA Carolinas.

Overall travel has rebounded this year with AAA Carolinas' Travel Agency seeing a 21 percent increase in air travel compared to last year, an increase of 26 percent in car rentals, a 9 percent in hotel bookings and a 5% increase in personalized TripTiks for automobile travelers.

“The appetite for travel of all kinds has returned this year,” said Parsons.

Because July 4 falls on a Wednesday this year, the calendar plays a role in driving holiday travel volume upwards. The last time July 4 was on a Wednesday, holiday travel set a record of 1,090,300 vacationers who traveled more than 50 miles from home by air or motor vehicle.

More than a million - 1,008,700 - are expected to drive, with slightly more than half expected to begin their five-day holiday on July 4; the remainder beginning theirs on Friday, June 30th. Air travel passengers state-wide will total 51,800, up from 47,000 flyers last July 4th - a 9.9 percent increase over last year, due in large part by the extended 5-day holiday travel period, which allows more time for longer distance trips. Additionally, airfares are flat year over year, with an average lowest round-trip rate of $200 for the top 40 U.S. air routes in both 2011 and 2012, according to AAA's Leisure Travel Index. Roughly 77,000 are expected to travel by watercraft, trains or multi-model transportation.

July 4 is often a deadly traffic holiday and in 2007 there were 14 fatalities in North Carolina. Nationally, more than 140 people die on the highway over the July 4 holiday, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

“While there are more people on the road this holiday, there will be less congestion because of the weekend split,” said Parsons. “In 2007, this helped keep the fatality total down.” (There were 20 July 4th traffic deaths in 2009). Speeding, driver distraction, alcohol usage and drowsy driving are huge contributors to holiday traffic deaths.

The most popular drive destinations will be Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Asheville, Atlanta and Orlando, with the average round trip 645 miles and the median amount expected to be spent is $962. Another factor in this year's holiday travel is the drop in gas prices. In North Carolina, the cost of a gallon of gas is down 31 cents from Memorial Day at $3.244 per gallon currently. That is 49 cents less than the Wednesday before July 4th last year. North Carolina will suspend construction projects along interstates, NC and US routes from 4 p.m. Tuesday, July 3 until 9 a.m. Thursday July 5. The exceptions are U.S. 17 in Jacksonville on the Buddy Phillips Bridge; US 158 over the Pasquotank River in Elizabeth City, and NC 32 in Chowan County between Edenton and NC. 94 that is closed for bridge replacement over Queen Anne Creek.

Motorists on other holiday travel days in North Carolina may encounter construction delays. North Carolina construction site information is available on www.ncdot.gov/travel or by calling 511 within the state.

South Carolina prohibits lane closures on major interstates and routes by construction crews between June 27 and July 11 except for a reduction to one lane in each direction on US 17 inside Georgetown. Motorists taking a trip can budget estimated gas costs for their vehicles at www.fuelcostcalculator.com. By entering origin, destination, make and model of their vehicle, motorists receive the estimated gasoline cost for their trip.

Some AAA Carolinas' recommended road safety tips include:
    •    Get your car checked before beginning your trip, especially checking fluids and tire pressure (see your owner's manual or the side of your tires for the recommended air pressure) Make sure you have a spare tire in the vehicle and that it is properly inflated.
    •    Follow the rules of the road by not speeding, wearing your seatbelt and never driving while impaired.
    •    Keep your headlights on - both day and night. It helps your car be more visible to other drivers.
    •    Begin your trip well rested. Plan to start early in the day.
    •    Add 15 minutes to every hour your trip typically takes to factor in time for added traffic.
    •    Take a break every two hours or 150 miles. Stop the car, get some exercise and/or something to eat and drink. Use the rest stops or get out and walk around.
Minimize your distractions:
    •    Plan your route before you begin the trip (i.e. map it out or set up GPS system) before you begin driving.
    •    Keep children busy - make sure you have activities planned for them (i.e. books, ipods, DVDs and movies, small games)
    •    Use a cell phone only if really necessary and keep your conversation short. Pull over to the side of the road if you need to talk longer or get directions.
    •    Stop driving when you're tired. Pay attention to your body clock -- if you can't remember the last two miles or if your eyelids start to droop, take a break or stop for the day.