The days just before Christmas, as people rush to buy presents and travel to holiday destinations, can be more dangerous on roadways than the days surrounding Thanksgiving and New Year’s, according to a recent study of traffic data by The University of Alabama Center for Advanced Public Safety.
Analyzing the past 10 years of Alabama crash data during six-day periods surrounding Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, UA researchers found heavy traffic surrounding all three major holidays can increase the chances for automobile accidents. However, in 2012, the six-day period that includes Christmas had 18 percent more auto accidents than the Thanksgiving period and 27 percent more than the days around New Year’s Day, according to the center, known as CAPS.
“The shopping days before Christmas are perilous,” said Dr. David Brown, a professor of computer science at UA and a research associate with CAPS.
The study employed the Critical Analysis Reporting Environment, or CARE, a software analysis system developed by CAPS research and development personnel to automatically mine information from existing databases. Crash records for the study were provided by the Alabama Department of Public Safety.
The study analyzed crashes over the past 10 years that occurred during the six-days that included Thanksgiving and compared them with similar periods that included Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
In 2012, there were 1,996 crashes from Dec. 21-26, with 10 fatal accidents. During the Tuesday before Thanksgiving to the Sunday after the holiday last year, there were 1,698 crashes, with nine fatal crashes. From Dec. 27 to New Year’s Day in 2013, there were 1,552 accidents, with 10 fatal crashes. For all three holidays, the severity of crashes was about the same with just more than 20 percent of crashes resulting in injuries, including the fatal crashes.
“Clearly Thanksgiving week and the days leading up to and including New Year’s Eve and Day are much lower than the six-day period that included Christmas,” Brown said. “While fatal crashes were comparable, crashes involving injuries and those with only property damage were significantly higher mainly before Christmas. This was probably a result of the increased traffic due to late Christmas shopping, coupled with long distance travel where many might not be familiar with their travel environment.”
Still, it’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison over the 10-year study because Christmas and New Year’s Day fall on a different day of the week each year. “It was harder to study these holidays over the 10-year period than it is Thanksgiving,” Brown said. “The impact of the weekends has a large influence on the traffic patterns around these holidays.”
Traveling on the actual holidays are generally the safest since there is less traffic, according to the crash data.
With Christmas this year on a Wednesday, the major problem days will be the prior Friday, Monday and Tuesday. Each day has its own peculiarities, so this is based on the generally observed patterns, Brown said. Christmas has not fallen on a Wednesday in the past 10 years, so 2012, with a Tuesday as Christmas, is probably the best comparison. Brown said he was reluctant to go back more than ten years because of the large changes in the demographics over this time period.
Generally, Christmas Eve has lighter traffic than Dec. 21-23, depending on where the weekend falls. Brown said this is probably caused by some stores closing relatively early on Christmas Eve, thus avoiding the late night hours that can be quite problematic because of the presence of impaired driving.
“Christmas itself is a very low day because very few people are on the road,” Brown said. “Impaired driving is probably not nearly as much of a relative causal issue in the days before Christmas as the concentration in the traffic. However, people can control their drinking. The best countermeasures would be to avoid both the late night hours and the days in which everyone else is on the roads.”
There were no clear patterns after Christmas with the exception of the normal surge on Friday for years where people return to work after Christmas, and Friday tends to become a work day.
On any given week, Fridays are typically the worst days for crashes, especially Friday afternoons, with many people in the commuter and more distant traveler mix and the additional influence of alcohol and drug use that starts at this time in anticipation of the weekend.
For the week of Thanksgiving, this “Friday pattern” tends to move back to Wednesday, but traffic patterns are changing, according to the CAPS analysis.
About a decade ago, the day before Thanksgiving had a much higher number of crashes as Friday patterns merged with holiday travel, but over the past five years it appears people have been heeding advice to leave earlier to avoid the rush, Brown said.
“While we have an increase number of crashes on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving, these days are not nearly as dangerous as the Wednesday once was due to the crashes being spread out over these days,” he said. “We advise people to leave as early as their work schedules might allow.”
As for New Year’s Eve, once considered one of the worse times of the year for crash fatalities caused by impaired driving, data shows initiatives to decrease impaired driving have paid off. Initiatives such as targeted enforcement, cultural awareness for designating non-impaired drivers, free taxi services, overtime pay for more local and state police presences, safety programs and publicity of the dangers of impaired driving have borne fruit, Brown said.
“There is no doubt that all of these have combined to save lives,” he said. “However, we still recommend that driving during this potentially hazardous time be avoided altogether if it all possible.”
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