Fatal accidents over Labor Day weekend are surpassed only by those on Thanksgiving – here’s how to keep your family safe

Labor Day, a federal holiday that began in the 19th century as a way to celebrate American workers, has long since evolved to mark the unofficial end of summer and start of fall. For millions of Americans, the three-day weekend is filled with barbecues, parades, and other celebrations.

But the day isn’t all roses. Holiday weekends tend to have higher rates of traffic accidents and deaths because more people are on the road, and more of them are likely to be driving under the influence.

We wanted to understand the threat of dangerous driving on Labor Day weekend, how it compares to other long weekends, and which areas of the country are most prone to Labor Day weekend traffic fatalities. We analyzed five years’ worth of NHTSA data surrounding fatal traffic accidents across the country on the long Labor Day weekend.

Key Findings:

  • An average of 342 fatal accidents have occurred annually on Labor Day holiday weekends over the past five years.

  • Considering total traffic deaths, only Thanksgiving has had more fatalities than Labor Day, with Memorial Day in a close third place.

  • Montana, Wyoming, and Maine have the highest population-adjusted rates of deadly crashes over Labor Day weekend.

How Frequent Are Labor Day Weekend Traffic Fatalities?

Over the past five years, the three-day Labor Day holiday weekend has averaged about 342 fatal accidents annually. Since 2005, Labor Day ranks second behind only Thanksgiving for the average number of traffic deaths. Accidents and fatalities don’t align perfectly because an accident can cause more than one death.

Average number of traffic fatalities by holiday weekend

Thanksgiving 484
Labor Day 438
Memorial Day 436
Fourth of July 424
Christmas 348

Detailed data covering the 2020 Labor Day holiday weekend have not been released, but the NHTSA has indicated that despite the pandemic, traffic fatalities increased in 2020. The number of traffic fatalities rose by about seven percent. It stands to reason that holiday weekend deaths also rose in 2020.

When Are Accidents Most Likely?

Traffic accidents tend to peak during nighttime hours as visibility on the roads falls, and that’s true for fatal crashes as well. In 2019, about 40 percent of fatal Labor Day crashes occurred between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Fatal Labor Day weekend accidents by hour

Midnight 14
1 a.m. 13
2 a.m. 17
3 a.m. 14
4 a.m. 8
5 a.m. 13
6 a.m. 5
7 a.m. 10
8 a.m. 3
9 a.m. 10
10 a.m. 6
11 a.m. 11
Noon 18
1 p.m. 9
2 p.m. 12
3 p.m. 17
4 p.m. 19
5 p.m. 22
6 p.m. 20
7 p.m. 15
8 p.m. 26
9 p.m. 27
10 p.m. 22
11 p.m. 10
Saturday 123
Sunday 117
Monday 102

Where Are Labor Day Traffic Deaths Most Common?

High-population states like California, New York, and Texas have had the highest number of fatal traffic accidents on Labor Day weekend over the past several years, but after adjusting for population differences, many of the states that top the list have the fewest residents.

States with most fatal accidents per capita on Labor Day weekend

Per 1 million residents

Montana 2.47
Wyoming 2.41
Maine 2.25
Arkansas 1.93
Vermont 1.92
North Dakota 1.85
South Carolina 1.83
New Mexico 1.82
West Virginia 1.77
Missouri 1.64

Similarly, many of the largest American cities have also seen the highest number of roadway fatalities over Labor Day weekends. Los Angeles County, which houses the city of Los Angeles, had the highest number of total deaths, 34, with Illinois’ Cook County, home of the city of Chicago, in second place with 18. Another California county, San Bernardino, was third with 15.

But after adjusting for population differences, many sparsely populated counties have high rates of traffic deaths. Among counties where more than one fatal accident has occurred on Labor Day weekend over the past half-decade, Bottineau County, North Dakota has the highest population-adjusted rate of fatal accidents. Bottineau is one of the northernmost counties in the U.S., residing along the U.S.-Canadian border, and its population is about 6,400.

Counties with most fatal accidents per capita on Labor Day weekend

Per 1 million residents

Bottineau County, ND 62.2
Howard County, MO 59.1
Custer County, SD 48.7
Jenkins County, GA 48.0
Benewah County, ID 43.1
Lewis County, WV 36.6
Amite County, MS 30.5
Plumas County, CA 30.0
McIntosh County, OK 29.6
Reeves County, TX 29.0

How Can You Keep Safe on the Road This Labor Day?

Staying safe on the road doesn’t necessarily mean staying home. Here are some tips for keeping yourself and your loved ones safe if you’re planning to hit the road this Labor Day weekend:

  1. Always wear a seatbelt. Seatbelt use cuts the risk of driver and front-seat passenger death by 45 percent and lowers the risk of serious injury by half.

  2. Especially if traveling a long distance for your Labor Day weekend gathering, make sure you get plenty of sleep and take regular breaks to avoid fatigue. But remember that drowsy driving can be a danger regardless of the distance. Studies have estimated that fatigue contributes to between 15 percent and 33 percent of all fatal crashes.

  3. Don’t use a cellphone behind the wheel, even if you’re going hands-free.

  4. Remember that impaired driving starts with just one drink, and those who are intoxicated are much less likely to make good decisions, such as not driving. Designate a drug- and alcohol-free driver, call a friend to pick you up, or take an Uber, Lyft, or cab home.

  5. Check the weather. Though Labor Day occurs during a season with warm weather in most places across the country, rain, wind, and fog can also cause drivers to lose control of their vehicles, especially if they’re speeding.

  6. Make sure young children are buckled into age- and size-appropriate car seats or booster seats.

  7. Speaking of kids, bring technology like portable DVD players or tablets to keep them entertained, and be sure all devices can connect to headphones. That will help divert kids’ attention and let the driver focus on the road. If your kids are quiet and not into technology, bring road games or other activities they can do while they sit in the backseat.

  8. If you’re traveling to a new destination, especially if you’ll arrive late at night or during rush hour, have another adult sit in the front passenger seat and serve as your navigator. This keeps the driver’s eyes on the road, and it may also help you avoid making the wrong turn, since you’ll have a designated navigator.

  9. Where practical, use your car’s cruise control to make sure you maintain a safe speed and always keep a safe distance from the cars in front of you.

Conclusion

With more people on the road and drivers who are more likely to be under the influence, Labor Day weekend is one of the riskiest times to take to the roads. But some common-sense safety tips can help make sure you and your loved ones enjoy the long weekend free of tragedy.

Methodology

We analyzed the past several years’ worth of data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to determine which holidays have the most fatalities from traffic accidents, when most fatal crashes occur, and which parts of the country have the highest rates. We created queries using NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) and Fatality and Injury Reporting System Tool (First). Those figures were compared to Census population estimates to create population-adjusted accident rates.