Most dangerous holidays for hitting the road

Holiday fireworks belong in the sky, not the highwayThe last thing you want to think about when preparing for an upcoming holiday is what could go wrong. But given that traffic mishaps tend to occur more often over holidays -- thanks to more cars on the road and a propensity among some to drink and then get behind the wheel -- perhaps safety should be the first thing you think about. A little preparation and some precautionary measures can make your holidays what they should be: friendly and fun.

So which holidays demand extra care?

4th of July, Independence Day

Many people would guess that fireworks are the big killer during the 4th of July holidays, when in fact in 2008 it was the deadliest three-day holiday weekend, averaging 178 fatalities a day, on the American highway. July 4th itself is annually the single most deadly day on U.S. roads, according to Anne Fleming of the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety.

This holiday is behind only New Year's Day with highway fatalities attributable to alcohol; 41% of the average of 508 deaths during this three-day period are alcohol-related. Expect the raw numbers to go up this year; AAA is projecting travel this holiday will be up a whopping 17.1% over 2009.

Between 1998 and 2008 there was an average of 572 deaths annually on U.S. highways during the Thanksgiving holiday, making it the most deadly four-day holiday period on American roads. Fewer of the drivers were alcohol-impaired, however; only 36%, compared with Independence Day's 41%. The statistics are skewed because of the high number of cars on the road and the unusual distances driven to share the holiday joy. The National Safety Commission blames speeding and tired and/or sleepy drivers, as well as those who have imbibed, for the high number of deaths.

According to a study by the National Sleep Foundation, those at most risk of driving while drowsy are
  • Young adults 18-29
  • Men (56%) more than women (45%)
  • Shift workers
It cites another study that determined that being awake for 18 hours produces an impairment equal to a blood alcohol level of .05 (.08 is legally drunk in most states). This goes up to .10 after a full day without sleep.

To get a rough idea of how many drinks will put you above the legal limit, check out this calculator. However, studies have shown that even one drink impairs driving ability a bit, so think 'designated driver' for this year's festivities.

New Year's Eve/New Year's Day
With an average of 140 deaths (based on statistics from 2002 to 2008), New Year's Day is the second most deadly day for drivers, according to Anne Fleming of the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety.

Pedestrians are at an elevated risk on these days as well, perhaps due to alcohol consumption and/or inclement weather.

As you might expect, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) statistics show that, in comparison to other holidays, a higher percentage (42%) of traffic deaths over this holiday period were due to drunk driving.
Labor Day
In 2008 Labor Day was only a hair's-breath behind the 4th of July in fatalaccidents due to an intoxicated driver. From 1998 to 2008, an average of 503 people died annually during Labor Day weekend, 40% of those deaths were due to drunk drivers.

The statistics would be better were it not for the some of the public's continued stubborn refusal to wear seat belts. Kevin T. Fearn, Senior Statistical Analyst for the National Safety Council, said that only 42% of victims who died in passenger car and light truck crashes in 2008 were wearing their seat belts. A study by NHTSA found that 18% of car drivers still don't use them. Women are 5% more likely to use seat belts than men.


Thankfully, this holiday sees the lowest total of highway deaths per day, although 133 per day is still reason for concern. This number is a bit misleading, though, because December overall is one of the months with the highest death rate per mile driven. This could be because the elevated chance of a fatal crash is high not just on Christmas Day, but over several days leading up to it.

39% of these fatalities are due to drunk driving, on average. Office parties, perhaps?

Memorial Day
Driving deaths are not quite as common on Memorial Day as summer holidays later in the calendar year. Over this three-day weekend, though, an average of 161 people are killed in car accidents in the U.S. per day, 40% due to drunk driving.

To cut back on your risk, avoid driving during peak danger periods. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, "Between 9 pm and 6 am, 60% of fatally injured passenger vehicle drivers in 2008 had BACs at or above 0.08%, compared with 20% during other hours."

St. Patrick's Day and other holidays that defy expectation
One might guess that this day, along with Cinco de Mayo and Halloween, are days where imbibing might lead to trouble on the highway. According to Bloch, Shin and Labin, though, one would be wrong. They found that "there is little evidence of extra drinking and driving crashes in eight out of the nine years examined." Perhaps that green beer started out its life lite on alcohol.

Should one of these holidays fall on a Saturday, however, stay especially vigilant. This day of the week sees far more fatalities than any other. The riskiest days of the week are, in order from most to least, Saturday, Friday, Sunday, Thursday, Wednesday, Monday and Tuesday.


The real danger on Halloween is pedestrian. Combine young children, candy, vision-compromising costumes and twilight and you have a recipe for disaster. New Year's Day and Halloween share the sad distinction of seeing more pedestrian deaths than any other days of the year. Statistics are not available about how many more collisions take place in driveways and parking lots.

The surprisingly dangerous not-really-a-holiday
Although Super Bowl Sunday is not an official American holiday, it must be mentioned when discussing dangerous days to be on the road. According to a 2002 study by Bloch, Shin and Labrin, alcohol-related fatal and injury accidents in California exceeded normal numbers in 8 of the 9 years studied. The authors quoted another study by Redelmeier which found that "in the hours after the Super Bowl, there was a 41% increase in fatalities nationally."

Super Bowl Sunday aside, though, February and March see the fewest road fatalities, while March is the month with the fewest deaths per mile driven. That winter getaway might not be nearly as risky as it would be in the summer.

If we've scared you out of traveling by car for your holiday pleasures, take heart; Americans drove an estimated 2,974,000,000,000 miles in 2008 and only averaged 1.25 fatalities per every 100,000,000 miles.

Here are some suggestions to make your driving as safe as possible:
  1. Drive sober and straight.
  2. Get adequate rest: caffeine does not equal sleep.
  3. Buckle up.
  4. Trade off driving when possible.
  5. Choose lower-traffic times to travel.
  6. Leave early enough that you aren't rushed.
  7. Control your speed: cruise control can help.
  8. Turn off your phone.
  9. Put all children in child seats appropriate to their size.
  10. Don't fight the weather.

What holiday would you peg as the most dangerous?


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