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Planning on driving on July 4? Here’s what you need to know this year

Virginia Department of Transportation suggests planning ahead, maintaining safety and looking out for lifts on lane closures.

Photo by Alexander Popov

Day-to-day driving is stressful enough. We spend hours watching the traffic stack up in front of us, only to watch our estimated arrival times get extended beyond our breaking points. Add holiday travelers into the mix? Things can get heated pretty quickly.

The Virginia Department of Transportation has a few tactics to help drivers avoid the aggravation during upcoming Fourth of July travel.

The department released an interactive map for travelers to use prior to their departure for Independence Day, lifted lane closures across the state (although some will not be lifted due to semi-permanent work zones) and wants drivers to know about the resources they have if an emergency occurs.

We spoke with Jeff Stapleton, the communications coordinator for VDOT, about the department’s tips to get everyone smooth sailing throughout the holiday week, and here’s a hint: some driving patience is required.

What should Virginia drivers expect from possible congestion this year?
While VDOT doesn’t track the number of cars on the road, we do know that the travel, especially around the holiday, will be heavy. One of the things VDOT likes to do is provide a travel-trends map that basically takes the history of holiday congestion for the past three years and predicts what the trends will be. It can’t specifically say how the traffic is going to be this year but this year’s trend map for the Fourth of July holiday shows that periods of moderate to heavy congestion will happen in the afternoon hours on Saturday, July 6, and Sunday, July 7.

VDOT also likes to lift as many lane closures as possible during the holiday travel period. That’s happening from noon on Wednesday, July 3 to noon on Friday, July 5. It’s important to know that VDOT can’t lift all the lane closures and suspend all the work because some projects are just too involved to allow traffic to go by. We do have a listing of all the closures that will remain on our website.

What should drivers do to prepare before departure?
It’s always a good idea to be prepared before you go. Fill up your gas tank before leaving and have an emergency kit in the car. That’s a good idea to have no matter when you’re driving. As far as things to check before you leave, we would recommend you check out the Virginia 511 app or website. That can offer a lot of information before you leave on your trip, such as construction sites that still need to happen during the holiday, and there are links to traffic cameras that you can see that are in real-time.

You’re stuck in fully stopped traffic. What do you do?
The best thing you can do is be patient. It’s not worth to it to lose your temper … everyone’s in the same mess that you’re in. A lot of the times, no matter where you are, the traffic reports you hear on the radio come from information from traffic cameras that VDOT has, or other state transportation departments have, if you’re in another state. It is a good idea to stay informed. If you don’t have access to a traffic report, the suggestion would be to stay patient and just wait it out. There usually is a good reason for congestion, but sometimes it’s just volume (the amount of the cars on the road) and that’s certainly a possibility during holidays like the Fourth of July.

If you’re the one who ends up in an accident, what do you do?
If it’s minor and there are no injuries, agencies like the state police advise you to move your car to the shoulder or an emergency pull-off area (often found within road construction zones) if at all possible. If you are pulled over on the side of the road, one of the things VDOT has is the Safety Service Patrol, where, should an emergency arise while traveling on an interstate, they can assist with traffic control and scene management. They aim to minimize incident duration, clear obstruction and debris from the roadway, as well as establish temporary traffic control for emergency responders. In less-serious cases, they can also assist with tire changes, fuel if you run out of gas, give you a jump start or water for overheating radiators and offer phone access to call local tow/recovery services if needed.

If someone doesn’t want to check the 511 app while driving, where else can they get information?
We certainly don’t want people checking their phone while driving (It is currently against the law statewide to text or email while driving). If you have a passenger with you in the car, have them check the information and pass along any real-time information. If there are small children or nobody else is in your car, it may be a good idea to find a safe place to stop and check the information on your phone when you’re not driving or call a friend or family member who can check the information for you on their computer. If you do have access to traffic information from a radio station, that’s a good place to get information too.

Many may use the “back roads” tactic for travel, is that a good idea?
Normally, with active traffic reports, apps, such as Waze or Google Maps, will give you acceptable, alternate routes. It’s a good idea to follow recommendations for alternate routes, which most of the time tend to be main roads or primary roads. But be aware that those also might be where other people are going and they can be risky, even if an app like Waze sends you on a back road, simply because it’s unknown (or it could be unknown) and it could be potentially more dangerous at night.

Is there anything else drivers should know about traveling for Independence Day in 2019?
We certainly want people to be safe and prepared any time they drive and especially during times when there’s a lot of traffic. We also want people to have safety be top-of-mind when they hit the road. They may seem like common sense things, but it’s always a good reminder to remember these other tips: have a designated driver if you plan to drink; buckle up while behind the wheel; keep your eyes on the road, not on electronic devices; take a break if you’re drowsy; don’t drive distracted.  If you see somebody driving distracted, speak up. Remember, your actions impact yourself, your passengers and everyone else on the road.

The VDOT Customer Service Center can be contacted 24 hours a day at 800-FOR-ROAD (800-367-7623). It is the place to go to report a road problem or if you have a problem of your own and you need the Safety Service Patrol. For more information on VDOT and holiday travel, please visit virginiadot.org.

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