As we surge into the year-end holiday blitz, countless Americans will be traveling, whether they want to be or not. For hardcore travelers, holiday travel is amateur season -- much like New Year's Eve is considered amateur night by committed year-round revelers -- but the clarion calls of family gatherings, vacation days and warmer climates make it almost impossible to stay put. It's "Go Anyway" writ large.
While most holiday travel tips focus on navigating airports, dealing with security lines and finding overhead bin space -- and airports do get infamously clogged and bogged down at this time of year -- in truth the vast majority of travelers are moving around by car. This is especially the case on Thanksgiving; of the 46.3 million people the AAA forecasts will travel distances of 50 miles or more over the 2014 Thanksgiving weekend, more than 89 percent of them are expected to drive to their destination.
More cars on the road in potentially wintry conditions almost invariably mean increased risks for travelers. Add to that the considerable increase in the ingestion of alcoholic drinks, and the major winter holidays rank among the most dangerous days to be in your car all year. But there's a lot more to it than merely avoiding Thanksgiving Wednesday and New Year's Eve; in fact, these aren't necessarily the most dangerous days to travel any longer. Here is our look at how to keep yourself safe while driving on holiday weekends year-round, not just on the big holidays just ahead.
Before addressing holiday travel specifically, an important aside is the contribution of crazed shopping days to the overall picture. Although it might not occur to a travel writer, it turns out that folks zooming around shopping may add greatly to the danger on at least a couple of winter holidays. For example, the so-called "Black Friday" after Thanksgiving is one of the more dangerous days to drive, in large part because it is one of the busiest shopping days of the year. The critical mass created by some folks driving home from Thanksgiving dinner and others stampeding to malls makes for a potentially catastrophic combination.
Christmas Eve also seems to be made worse by this issue, as last-minute shoppers add anxiety and urgency to an already increased traffic load, to dangerous effect. Beyond the winter holidays, Memorial Day and July 4 sales also seem to contribute as well.
The most dangerous holidays for driving tend to be of the "long weekend" variety -- that is, holidays that reliably last three or four days, and always fall on a weekend. July 4, New Year's Eve, Christmas and other fixed-date holidays can sometimes land in the middle of the week, and as such don't always attract the critical mass of large numbers and iffy behaviors that weekend holidays can.
When July 4 falls on a Wednesday, for example, a lot of folks leave work a little early on Tuesday perhaps, grab a day at the beach and are back at work Thursday morning -- which doesn't leave a lot of time for travel or tippling.
For this reason, Labor Day often beats out July 4 in lists of the most dangerous driving holidays each year. Beware popular long weekends, year-round.
It turns out that, depending on the year and the weather, two long weekend holidays, Memorial Day and Thanksgiving, tend to vie for the ignominious title of the most deadly holiday of the year. In some years, experts indicate that Memorial Day is worse; in others, the ugly honors have fallen to Thanksgiving.
A few factors come into play: first, both tend to be "driving holidays," where folks drive to see family or to the closest beach they can find, and are not dominated by air travel. Second, the longer weekend tends to give folks some latitude with respect to behavior, as noted above. Finally, both holidays tend to be considered heavy "party weekends" for younger Americans.
You might think that New Year's Eve would be far and away the most dangerous holiday to be on the roads, but it turns out not to be the case, at least not in recent years. A recent study by researchers at the University of Alabama found that in 2012, the travel period around New Year's Day was actually 27 percent less dangerous than the one that included Christmas.
Folks may be more likely to plan ahead to get home safely on a night they know they will almost certainly be impaired, and not to underestimate the extent to which their driving is actually impaired. Public services like free or reduced taxi rides and shuttle services are also available in many places on New Year's Eve. As well, there's an increased fear getting caught, as people know that an increased police presence is on higher alert for drunk drivers. Public awareness campaigns addressing these issues seem to be making a difference, which is good news.
In the past few years, our own reader feedback here at IndependentTraveler.com has seemed to indicate a lessening of the Wednesday, pre-Thanksgiving crush of travelers. Reports of readers breezing through airports on Wednesday afternoon have become almost normal. And this seems to be borne out by the aforementioned University of Alabama study, which found that the number of accidents on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving has been going down for the past five years. There seems to be a real and measurable trend of folks avoiding the traditional Wednesday crush.
It's a bit scary to think about it, no pun intended, but somewhat surprisingly, Halloween turns out to be a very bad day for crashes, with a higher incidence of both drunk driving and pedestrian fatalities. Imagining the types of accidents that would be most common on Halloween is a bit chilling -- with so many kids in the streets, this is one holiday we all want to be extra careful.
In general, the Alabama researchers have found that the holidays themselves -- Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, July 4, etc. -- tend to hold far fewer accidents than the days just before and after the holidays. This is due to simple math; people tend to stay put on the actual holidays, so there are more folks coming and going on the days before and after. In fact, the study found that Thanksgiving Day proper had the 13th lowest number of accidents all year.
This trend seems only to be accelerating, especially at Christmas. The latest study by Alabama indicates that the six-day period before Christmas Day 2012 had more accidents than either Thanksgiving or New Year's. This comes down almost wholly to frantic shopping, whew.
Awareness is half the battle; if you know the days with the highest number of cars, as well as impaired drivers, you know when to be alert, and when to relax. Below are a few more quick safety tips:
1. If your schedule allows, travel on the holidays, not around them. Thanksgiving morning, for example, makes for some really nice driving. Alternatively, travel off-kilter from everyone else; examples might be Thursday afternoon - Monday morning on Memorial Day weekend, or Thursday morning - Tuesday on Thanksgiving. If you must travel during peak times, drive defensively and stay alert.
2. Route around big box stores, malls, outlet stores, airports and major sport venues.
3. Get your shopping done early to avoid the deadly last six days before Christmas.
4. Travel early in the day, as volume tends to be lowest then. (Holiday parties and early wake-ups tend not to coincide.)
5. If you see someone driving erratically, chances are good that they are impaired; get away from them (my inclination is usually to get them behind me, but that is not always possible; do what you can).
Hopefully the foregoing information helps you avoid the most treacherous holiday drive times. All of that said, driving may not be the most dangerous thing you do on the average holiday weekend. According to this infographic, 13,000 people are seen each year for accidents related to holiday decorations, about 2,000 people every winter are treated for lacerations, sprains and other injuries due to tripping over extension cords, and more than 100,000 people are treated for scalding accidents per year (so be careful with that holiday ham). Stay safe on the roads, and when you get on a ladder to boot!