Thanksgiving can be a time that many of us either love or dread, depending on how we feel about our extended families—but you may not be aware that the food-focused holiday weekend is a prime time for driving accidents.
According to a recent study from The University of Alabama Center for Advanced Public Safety (CAPS), data averaged over a six-year period showed an additional 50 road deaths during Thanksgiving week compared to every other week of the year. Here’s a look at why the Turkey Day holiday is such a scary time for drivers—and what you can do to stay safe on the road.
1. There are far more drivers on the road than usual.
Last year, AAA estimated that over 39 million Americans would drive at least 50 miles, with the busiest travel day being the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. When there are far more vehicles on the road than usual, there are more opportunities for collisions. Additionally, many people who typically drive on local roads take to the highways: Interstate crashes increased by 25 percent during Thanksgiving week, according to the CAPS study. The center director, Allen Parrish, attributes the increase to people who are unaccustomed to driving in unfamiliar settings.
2. Many people are driving much longer distances than usual, making them susceptible to drowsy driving accidents.
If you primarily use your car for commuting a few miles back and forth to work, you’re likely not used to long-distance driving, and may not recognize the signs that indicate when you should take a break from the road before your judgment is impaired.
“If you’ve been up for 18 hours, your key driving skills are as impaired as much as if you were intoxicated,” says Steve Mochel, president of the driving school franchise Fresh Green Light. During a long road trip, you should try and take a break every couple of hours. “It can be as simple as pulling off into a rest area and just getting out of the car for 10 minutes to walk around and stretch your legs,” Mochel says.
And, he cautions, “the minute you start feeling drowsy you should stop driving.” Instead of rushing to make it to Grandma’s house at 3 AM, plan a hotel stop along the way so you’ll be refreshed enough to finish the drive the next morning.
3. Many people drive while intoxicated after their Thanksgiving festivities.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 40 percent of road deaths during Thanksgiving week involve a drunk driver. Although you may think that you’re in good shape to get behind the wheel after a few glasses of wine at Thanksgiving dinner, your decision to do so could put your own life, and your passengers’ lives at risk.
If you plan on drinking, stay at your host’s house until the effects wear off, or make sure that you have a designated driver who can take you back to your accommodation for the night. Even if you’re driving sober, it’s important to be aware that other drivers on the road may be intoxicated, so stay inside as much as possible in the late evening hours.
4. Many drivers become distracted while behind the wheel.
Distracted driving plays a role in one out of every four motor vehicle crashes, according to statistics from the Insurance Information Institute (III).“Text messaging, changing radio stations, even turning around to talk to passengers can prove deadly,” says Loretta Worters, III vice-president. If you need to make or receive a phone call, she recommends pulling off to the side of the road so that you can give the conversation your full attention.
You also should avoid eating or drinking while driving: Taking your eyes off the road even for a moment can have dangerous consequences.
5. Speeding is a prime factor in Thanksgiving traffic deaths.
According to the Alabama study, speeding was a factor in twice as many crashes during Thanksgiving week as in accidents at other times of the year. When on the road, make sure to stay at or under the speed limit, giving yourself plenty of time to reach your destination. It’s important to maintain a safe speed even once you get off the highway: According to data from the NHTSA, nearly half of speeding-related deaths occur on roads with limits below 50 miles per hour; over 20 percent occur on roads with speed limits of 35 mph or lower.
6. Nighttime driving can lead to more accidents due to visibility problems.
Many people aren’t used to spending much time on the road in the evening, so the evening is a prime time for accidents during Thanksgiving travel time. The Alabama study found that fatal accidents between 5 PM and 7 PM were 20 percent more common during this week than during the rest of the year. In some rural areas, run-ins with deer and other wildlife in the evening can be a significant safety issue too.
“When driving at night, use high beam headlights when there is no oncoming traffic,” Worters says. “The high beams will better illuminate the eyes of deer on or near the roadway.”