DOT: Weekend holiday means heavier traffic

LAWRENCEVILLE -- The Georgia Department of Transportation is advising drivers to prepare for delays as travel during the Fourth of July weekend is expected to increase this year.

In an attempt to better accommodate the increase in motorists this weekend, the DOT will suspend construction-related lane closures on all interstates and major state routes from 5 p.m. Friday until 5 a.m. Tuesday.

"We anticipate that with Independence Day falling on Sunday, there will be numerous people extending the weekend," said DOT Commissioner Vance Smith Jr. "Traffic congestion Thursday and (today) will be heavier than normal, with rush hours beginning as early as 1 p.m. in high-volume areas. Monday could be very busy, with people returning from the long holiday combined with regular rush hour."

For the Georgia State Patrol, the holiday travel period began at 6 p.m. Thursday and ends at midnight Sunday. The DOT's Crash Reporting Unit and the state patrol estimate there will be 2,072 traffic crashes, 999 injuries and 18 traffic deaths during that time.

Last year, 15 traffic fatalities occurred during the holiday travel period -- one crash was alcohol related and eight of the victims were not wearing seat belts. Three of those killed were motorcyclists.

"Enforcement personnel will be concentrating their efforts to locate impaired drivers on our roads as well as speeders and motorists who fail to buckle up," said Col. Bill Hitchens, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Safety. "Any time a holiday period falls on a weekend, there is an increased chance of encountering an alcohol impaired driver as you travel. Minimize distractions in your vehicle and be alert should you be forced to take evasive action to avoid a collision."

The new law banning texting while driving went into effect Thursday, but state patrol troopers will wait until Aug. 1 to crack down on texting drivers while focusing their efforts on educating the public and determining how to enforce the new ban. The law also bans texting and talking for drivers under 18 and requires drivers and passengers in pickup trucks to wear seat belts.

Nationwide, the number of projected travelers from Thursday through Monday is expected to increase 17.1 percent from 2009, with an estimated 34.9 million travelers taking a trip at least 50 miles or more away from their home, according to Auto Club South's holiday travel projections.

Last year, 29.8 million Americans traveled during the Independence Day weekend.

AAA estimates 834,641 Georgians will travel on the state's roadways this weekend, with an estimated 37,273 traveling by plane and 38,384 traveling by train or other forms or transportation.

"Overall, travel sentiment for Independence Day weekend is very high compared to last year, when the U.S. economy was in a very different place and Americans felt the strain of the recession," said Jessica Brady, manager of public relations for AAA. "Optimism is high this year for Independence Day travel, as more Americans report they plan to travel this year since they stayed home last year, mainly for financial reasons."