Officials urge caution for travelers

ALBANY, Ga. -- The Georgia Department of Transportation is advising motorists to expect delays, plan ahead and be patient during the Fourth of July holiday travel period.

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

The DOT will suspend construction-related lane closures on all interstates and major state routes through 5 a.m. Tuesday.

Things won't be any less crowded for those flying out of the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport.

Airport Director Yvette Aehle said 100 percent of Thursday's departing flights were booked, 96 percent of today's flights are booked as are 29 percent of Saturday's flights.

"We have a very strong weekend coming up," Aehle said. "The numbers are very, very good. We are very happy to see this traffic."

On the state's highways, traffic estimates from the DOT's Crash Reporting Unit and the Georgia State Patrol are for 2,072 traffic crashes, 999 injuries and 18 traffic deaths over the extended weekend.

Last year, there were 15 traffic deaths recorded during the holiday weekend. One of the fatal crashes was alcohol related and eight of the fatal crash victims were not wearing a seat belt. Three of the people killed were motorcyclists.

Colonel Bill Hitchens, Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Safety, said Georgia State Troopers and officers with the Department's Motor Carrier Compliance Division will be patrolling during the holiday weekend with a goal of keeping the holiday traffic count as low as possible.

"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," Hitchens said. "Our Troopers and MCCD officers will be concentrating on the most common violations identified as contributing factors in fatal traffic crashes."

"Anytime a holiday period falls on a weekend, there is an increased chance of encountering an alcohol impaired driver as you travel," Hitchens said. "Minimize distractions in your vehicle and be alert should you be forced to take evasive action to avoid a collision."

Nationwide, the American Automobile Association projects an increase in travel of 17.1 percent from 2009 with an estimated 34.9 million travelers taking a trip at least 50 miles or more away from home. Last year, 29.8 million Americans traveled during the Independence Day weekend.

Travel from Florida is projected to increase 6.2 percent, from Georgia by 11 percent, and from Tennessee by 16.1 percent, despite the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

"The situation in the Gulf continues to change rapidly and the long-term impact on tourism in the Gulf Coast region is still unknown," said Jessica Brady, manager, AAA Public Relations. "Currently, the majority of Florida's beaches are unaffected, beautiful and open to the public."

AAA has reported inquiries regarding travel to the Gulf Coast, but has not experienced widespread cancellations. Travel in the Gulf Coast region is expected to increase slightly since many travelers visit Florida for reasons other than the beaches such as golfing, theme parks, state parks, shopping, nightlife and to visit family and friends.