How to identify risks and stay safe on the road during the holidays

People wait for it every year — the air becomes a little cooler, and 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. Without warning, the happiest time of the year can quickly turn into a nightmare as people hurry to their holiday events, but some steps can be taken to reduce risks behind the wheel and stay safe on the roads this holiday season.

What makes driving during the holidays so dangerous?

Holiday driving is 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. The pandemic compounds the problem; stress levels are at an all-time high, and more people are likely to hit the roads this year rather than flying because driving allows for social distancing. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, although the roads emptied early in the pandemic, risky driving behaviors also became more likely. Drivers this year can 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. The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that more than 750 fatalities occur in December due to drunk driving. 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 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 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.
  • Fatigued and stressed driving is especially prevalent during the holidays. People might travel further than normal, feel more pressed for time and, this year in particular, tensions may run higher due to several months of dealing with COVID-19.

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 they also pose a heightened risk for drivers. All holidays show an increased risk for drunk driving accidents, and most tally more fatal accidents than other days, too.

Some holidays are more dangerous than others, though, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. These statistics pull data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for the 2011-2017 holiday seasons:

Based on these data points, America’s roadways are most dangerous during the warmer months, with Memorial Day, the 4th of July and Labor Day all experiencing 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 the increase in stressed, distracted and impaired holiday driving can lead to more serious accidents — with more serious consequences. An accident can cause fatal or long-term injuries, permanently affecting those in the accident as well as their families. Damaged vehicles lose value or need to be replaced, which can cause hardship with holiday expenses.

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.

These consequences are especially heavy around the holidays. An accident can take a financial toll and replace happy memories with stressful or heartbreaking ones.

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.

Remain alert

Not all drivers will be at their best, so focus on the road and drive with extra care. Always remember that other drivers may have been out celebrating or may be under additional stress. 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 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.

Drive defensively

Proceed cautiously and pay attention to other drivers. Allow extra distance from other cars, and let drivers merge where appropriate to reduce the risk of an accident.

Drive sober

Many people indulge in alcohol to celebrate the holidays, even when not attending formal events. Be sure not to drive impaired. Make alternate travel arrangements for safe, sober transportation before traveling, even when going a short distance.

Plan for the weather

Winter can bring unpredictable weather patterns with snow and ice. Check the weather forecast and adjust plans accordingly.

Watch for black ice

Black ice is one of the most treacherous parts of wintertime driving and 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 dangerous. Texting is one of the top reasons for accidents, and the holidays only heighten its danger. Avoid all distractions while driving, especially cell phones.

Service your car

The winter months are especially hard on cars because of salt, ice and glass 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. It is especially critical to drive cautiously and defensively with more drunk drivers on the road. This year, drivers should exercise an extra measure of caution and expect an increase in stressed drivers, as COVID-19 changes peoples’ travel plans and increases tensions on the road.

Even if holiday plans look different this year for many people, there will still be hazards like weather and distracted drivers on the roads. Spending a little extra time planning for trips, and focusing a little more behind the wheel is as important as social distancing and frequent hand-washing to keep everyone safe.

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