Despite the fact that new variants of COVID-19 are leaving things up in the air, Americans are making holiday travel plans again. For Thanksgiving in 2021 alone, AAA estimated that a total of 48.3 million people would be traveling by car, bringing it close to pre-pandemic levels.

With an influx of cars on the road again, drivers will need to take some precautions and stay alert while driving to prevent accidents. Driving conditions can change quickly depending on inclement weather, heavy traffic and road closures, and you may even come across a drunk or impaired driver. Whether your holiday plans include driving just down the road or a few hundred miles, Bankrate shares some safety tips that can be taken to reduce risks and stay safe behind the wheel during the holidays.

What makes driving during the holidays so dangerous?

Holiday road trips are particularly dangerous because of the increase in accidents and fatalities. There is so much to do in so little time, which leads to increased stress and less patience. With travel restrictions being lifted in most of the country due to the vaccines’ impact on COVID-19 cases, travel during the holidays can seem more exciting than usual. Still, as with any holiday season, drivers this year should still expect the roads to be both busier and less safe.

The holidays also tempt many people to have a spiked cider or eggnog before they head out on the roads. During the New Year’s and Christmas periods of 2018, the U.S. Department of Transportation found 285 drunk driving accidents that resulted in fatalities. The season brings plenty of celebration and merriment, but it also means more impaired drivers on the road.

Accidents can happen any time for any reason, but there are some dangers specific to the holiday season that threaten everyone’s safety during the happiest time of the year.

  • Drunk driving: Drunk driving is responsible for its fair share of holiday accidents and fatalities each year. Although there may be fewer in-person holiday events this year, even small gatherings can tempt a typically careful driver to get behind the wheel while impaired.
  • Inclement weather: The risk of bad weather can increase risk during the winter season. Snow, black ice, high winds and hail can all make the holidays a challenging time to be on the road. As people travel during the holidays, many drivers face hazardous conditions.
  • Drowsy or stressed driving: Fatigued and stressed driving is especially prevalent during the holidays. People might travel further than normal and feel more pressed for time.

When is it not a good time to be on the road?

While all holidays show an increased risk for drunk driving accidents and more fatal accidents, some holidays can be more dangerous than others. Summer and winter months are also typically some of the most dangerous times to be on the road. This is supported by a study done by the National Highway Traffic Safesty Administration (NHTSA) that compared traffic crash fatalities on Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas to New Year’s Day for the past forty years.

In 2019, there were 36,096 crash fatalities, averaging about 99 fatalities per day. The NHTSA Fatality and Injury Reporting System Tool can be used to determine crash fatalities for each day, and with this tool, it can be seen that crash fatalities were higher on holiday weekends during 2019:

  • Fourth of July weekend had 416 fatalities
  • Labor Day weekend had 455 fatalities
  • Thanksgiving weekend had 371 fatalities
  • Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day had 939 fatalities

Based on these data points, America’s roadways are most dangerous during summer, as those months had the highest rate of drunk driving accidents and the most fatalities. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day did not show a significant change from non-holidays in terms of driving fatalities. Still, the percentage of drunk driving accidents was about equal to more dangerous holidays like Memorial Day.

Some drivers will be lucky enough to get into nothing more than a fender-bender. But a serious accident can cause fatal or long-term injuries, and damaged vehicles may need to be repaired or replaced, which can be a financial hardship. What’s more, drivers who are at-fault in an accident can expect an increase in insurance rates. Tickets and DUIs influence insurance rates as well, and severe enough incidents can trigger fines or even jail time.

How to stay safe on the road this season

Even experienced and careful drivers are still susceptible to the many risks on the road. Weather and traffic can wreck even the best-laid plans, and other drivers pose a heightened risk due to the increase in celebrations. This holiday season, with more people driving due to the pandemic, it’s important to be prepared for anything.

Here are several ways that drivers can protect themselves and their families on the road this holiday season.

Practice safe driving

Not all drivers will be at their best, so focus on the road and drive with extra care. If traveling with children in a new or rental car, double-check to make sure their car seats are installed properly and seat belts fit well. Minimize distractions, like calling and texting, which is especially key now that holding a cellphone while driving is illegal in many states. Pause for an extra beat at traffic lights and stop signs, and proceed cautiously, keeping an eye on other drivers. Allow extra distance from other cars, and let drivers merge where appropriate to reduce the risk of an accident. If you plan to drink, make sure you have a plan for alternate transportation to avoid getting behind the wheel impaired.

Leave early

Traffic can appear out of nowhere and destroy carefully planned itineraries in seconds. Allow extra time and map out other routes in case of traffic, accidents or weather. GPS software can help, but it’s also a good idea to have maps in case cell service is spotty.

Plan for the weather and environment

Winter can bring unpredictable weather patterns with snow and ice. Check the weather forecast, bring snow chains if needed and adjust plans accordingly. Icy conditions may also create black ice, one of the most treacherous hazards of winter driving, which could cause severe injury and accidents. Learn how to spot black ice and drive slowly and defensively in poor weather.

Service your car

The winter months are especially hard on cars because of salt, ice and sand on the roads. There are often only seconds to react when there is an accident, and it’s important to be ready to respond. Check gas, tires and oil before leaving to ensure safe arrival.

Bottom line

There is always some risk when getting behind the wheel, but driving during the winter holidays can be especially dangerous. Seasonal festivities draw more drivers onto the roads, and not everyone exercises the utmost caution. Spending a little extra time planning for trips, and focusing a little more behind the wheel are key to staying safe this holiday season.

Additional resources: