Henryk Sadura/Getty Images

We wait for it every year – the air becomes a little cooler and America’s communities come to life in twinkling lights and festive décor. As exciting as the holidays are, they can also be the most dangerous time for driving. Driving conditions can change in seconds because of inclement weather, road closures, blocked intersections and overcrowded roads.

Drunk driving is not the only danger on the roads during the holidays. Aggressive driving, excessive speeding and reckless driving can all result in severe consequences. These can include fines, penalties, expensive insurance policies and even criminal charges. In the worst cases, dangerous driving can result in severe personal injury and even death.

Without warning, the happiest time of the year can quickly turn into a nightmare if you are not careful. Even if you are careful, there will always be perils on the road in the form of other drivers and vehicles. We will show you how to practice safe driving and identify risks so you and yours can stay safe on the roads this holiday season.

What makes driving during the holidays so dangerous?

Holiday driving is one of the most dangerous times of the year for its increase in accidents and fatalities, but many of these accidents are easily preventable. Distracted driving, impaired driving and stressed driving are all reasons why accidents occur, and these behaviors seem to skyrocket during the holidays. There is so much to do and such little time, leaving a lot of stress and not a lot of patience. We rush that much more and can become careless with our driving.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that someone dies from drunk driving every 48 minutes. In 2017, more than 300,00 injuries were attributed to drunk driving. The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reported that drunk drivers are to blame for 40% of all traffic-related deaths. The astounding numbers put a spotlight on the severe risk of holiday driving whether you imbibe or not.

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 our safety during the happiest time of the year.

  • Drunk driving is responsible for its fair share of holiday fatalities each year. Office parties, holiday celebrations and end-of-the-year events all supply plenty of opportunity for indulgence. Sometimes even the most careful driver can throw caution to the wind and get behind the wheel while impaired. Driving under the influence continues to be a problem during the holidays and carries stiff penalties, including loss of your driver’s license.
  • Inclement weather gets the best of us, no matter where you live. Acts of nature like snow, black ice, high winds and hail can all make the holidays a terrifying time to be on the road. Not all drivers are adept at driving in such hazardous conditions, and even veteran drivers fall victim to the elements. Holiday accidents can cause serious damage to your vehicle and your person while significantly impacting your insurance premiums moving forward.
  • Fatigued and stressed driving is especially prevalent during the holidays. Many people trek across the country to visit family and friends. With varying work and school schedules, drivers feel rushed, stressed and tired. Some drivers even fall asleep behind the wheel, significantly endangering both themselves and others. New and young drivers pose a risk, as well, because they do not have the experience and the instincts yet to react to danger quickly.

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

Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day are all reasons to celebrate, but surprisingly, they are not the worst holidays for traffic accidents. Holidays like Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day all experience greater accidents than the winter holidays. There is no doubt that the holiday season brings about greater pressure and stress, and there is an increase in stressed, distracted drivers on the road.

Some holidays are more dangerous than others, so we referred to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to see how the holiday season stacks up against other holidays.

These statistics are based upon data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for the 2011-2017 holiday seasons.

Based upon these studies, America’s roadways are most dangerous during the warmer months, with Memorial Day, the 4th of July and Labor Day all experiencing the most drunk driving accidents and the most fatalities.

Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day did not show a significant change from non-holidays, although the percentage of drunk driving accidents were about the same as more dangerous holidays like Memorial Day.

While some car accidents are minor, worse accidents have the potential to have life-altering consequences. An accident can cause fatal or long-term injuries, permanently affecting the lives of those in the accident and perhaps even their family’s lives. The damage caused in the accident could cause a vehicle to lose value or need to be replaced, something that may be even harder to do with holiday expenses coming up.

Insurance rates will often hike up, especially if you’re at fault in the accident. You could also get a ticket or a DUI, which will both influence your insurance rates and how much money you have in your bank account. If the incident is severe enough, you could have to pay fines or go to jail.

These consequences are never desirable, but they’re especially unpleasant around the holidays. An accident could replace happy memories with stressful or heartbreaking ones. These consequences are good reasons to drive safely and cautiously all year round.

How to stay safe on the road this season

Even if you are an experienced and careful driver, you 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 when so much celebration is at play.

Travel skyrockets during the holiday season as professional and social obligations pull us away from our homes and out onto the roads. There is family to visit, events to attend and trips to take. Shopping needs to be done, errands need to be run and your kids and pets have needs you must attend to. It’s a seemingly endless whirl of highways, traffic lights and parking lots. Exercise safe driving at all times to avoid incident.

Here are the best ways to protect yourself and your family this holiday season.

Remain alert
Not all drivers will be at their best, so keep your focus on the road and drive with extra care. Always remember when driving that there are many other celebrants on the road with you. Pause for an extra beat at traffic lights and stop signs, and keep an eye on other drivers.

Leave early
Traffic can appear out of nowhere and destroy your carefully planned itinerary in seconds. Give yourself extra time and map out other routes in case traffic, accidents or weather blocks your path. GPS software can help you in a jam, but also have maps in case you lose cell service.

Drive defensively
Take your time and pay attention to the other drivers around you. Give extra space between you and other cars, and allow drivers to merge where appropriate to reduce the risk of an accident.

Drive sober
Most people indulge in alcohol when attending holiday events. If you drink, do not drive impaired. Make alternate travel arrangements with safe, sober transportation before attending those holiday parties.

Plan for the weather
Winter can bring unpredictable weather patterns with snow and ice. Check the weather forecast before you leave and adjust your plans accordingly.

Watch for black ice
Black ice is one of the most treacherous parts of wintertime driving. It can cause severe injury and accidents. Learn how to spot black ice and drive slowly and defensively in poor weather.

Don’t text and drive
In addition to being against the law, handheld cellphone use is also incredibly dangerous. Texting is one of the top reasons for accidents today, and the holidays only heighten its danger. Avoid all distractions while driving, especially your cell phone.

Service your car
The winter months are especially hard on your car because of the salt, ice and glass on the roads. You have seconds to react when there is an accident, and you need your vehicle to be ready to respond. Check your gas, tires and oil before leaving so you can be sure you arrive safely.

Bottom line

There is a risk any time you drive, but driving during the winter can be especially dangerous. The festivities of the season will draw some drivers onto the roads, and not everyone will exercise the utmost caution in their travels. With more drunk drivers on the road, it is especially critical that you drive cautiously and defensively.

No matter where your travels take you, there will be hazards like weather and distracted drivers on the roads. With a little preparation and a lot of focus, you can avoid the travel woes of the holiday season.