How to Avoid 5 Costly Summer Driving Hazards

Summer is the time to dip your toe into a swimming pool, lounge around at a picnic and let your worries fall by the wayside. But don't let the long, lazy days of summer cause you to become too complacent behind the wheel.

True, the road ahead may be free of dangerous snow and ice. But other dangers lurk. For example, more people are killed in car crashes on July Fourth than any other day of the year, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

"It's the combination of more people on the road and the celebratory atmosphere of the Fourth," says Russ Rader, IIHS spokesperson. "A larger proportion of crashes involve drinking and driving on the Fourth than any other day except New Year's Day."

The following are five driving hazards that should remain on your radar during the warmer months. Ignoring these risks could cost you in terms of cash or car insurance claims - or even your well-being.

1. Hitting a wild animal

As more cars travel the open road during summer, the risk of hitting a deer, moose or other wild animal increases. It's important to be "an active and observant driver" at all times, says Dan Bleier, a spokesperson for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

"Drivers need to understand the type of area they are driving in and be aware of any signs or markings indicating the possibility of animal crossings," he says.

Collisions occur more often than you may realize.

State Farm, the nation's largest insurer, estimates there were 2.3 million collisions between deer and vehicles in the U.S. between July 1, 2008, and June 30, 2010 - up  21.1% from five years earlier.

Comprehensive car insurance coverage will reimburse you if your car is damaged after such a collision. If you don't have comprehensive, you'll have to pay out of pocket.

To lower the risk of hitting a wild animal, turn on your high beams and be extra cautious from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. to midnight. These are the times when you are more likely to encounter deer along the roadside, according to Michele Harris, director of Traffic Safety Culture for AAA Auto Club South.

Don't forget to wear your seat belt, which could save your life if you are unlucky enough to crash into a large animal. In any type of crash, Rader says "wearing your safety belt is the most important thing you can do to protect yourself."

2. Hydroplaning in wet weather

Many accidents are the result of simply failing to adjust your driving behavior to the conditions at hand. Bleier says the old standbys you learned in driver's ed - decreased speeds and leaving extra stopping distance between yourself and the car in front you - still apply.

Sometimes, it's best to simply stop fighting the elements.

"If a hailstorm is bad enough that you can't see the road, the safest thing might be to pull off to the side of the road and wait until driving conditions improve," he says.

A little extra caution is bound to slow you down, "but being involved in crash could end your trip entirely - or worse," says Bleier.

Other tips that can prepare you for driving in wet weather include:

*Clean the interior and exterior of your windshield and windows

*Check to make sure that all of your lights and turn signals are working properly

*Always use your headlights when visibility is poor

3. Snoozing at the wheel

Don't let the excitement of reaching Jackson Hole or your cabin in the woods tempt you to drive when you're drowsy.

According to a recent study conducted by the AAA Foundation, two out of five drivers report having fallen asleep while driving on at least one occasion in their lives, and one out of 10 drivers report having dozed at the wheel within the past year.

"About one in six fatal crashes involves a drowsy driver," says Belier, citing the same study.

If your thoughts start to wander or your eyelids grow heavy, immediately turn your driving duties over to a passenger. If you're the sole driver in the car, pull into a rest stop or hotel until you feel rested.

According to Harris, drivers should get a minimum of six hours sleep before getting behind the wheel and schedule a break every 100 miles or two hours. Do not drive at times when you typically sleep, or you may increase the odds of falling prey to exhaustion.

4. Injuring a bicyclist or motorcyclist

It's easy to keep an eye on other cars while driving, but bicycles and motorcycles typically become afterthoughts.  These two-wheeled vehicles are smaller than your car or truck, and they may be harder to spot in your mirror.

"Drivers should leave extra stopping space between themselves and riders because they (riders) have far less protection than those inside of other vehicles," Beleier says.

For their part, bikers should always dress in bright clothing, obey traffic laws and wear a helmet, according to Harris.

5. Speeding and damaging your car

Speeding puts your insurance rates at risk. It also can severely ding your wallet if you damage your car but don't have collision coverage to help pay the repair bill.

Speeding is one of the greatest contributors to accidents at any time of year and "is cited as a factor in one in three fatal crashes," says Bleier.

Many people who slow down to a crawl in winter weather feel like it's permissible to speed during the summer months simply because the road is free of snow and ice. In fact, a recent study by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety found that fatal crashes peak in the summer because dry roads give drivers a false sense of security.

"Drivers are focused on getting to their destination quickly rather than getting to their destination safely," says Bleier.

Instead, take your time. A summer trip is something to savor. After all, winter will be back soon enough.

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