Compared to regular days, deadly car wrecks surge in Oregon, Hawaii, and Washington on St. Patrick’s Day.
Alcohol, stress, increased traffic, inclement weather, and unfamiliar routes often make highways treacherous on and around holidays. Roadway fatalities increase overall during holiday travel but spike dramatically in specific states and around certain celebrations.
We analyzed five years of data from the Department of Transportation’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) to identify the most dangerous locations and perilous holidays for hitting the road.
Our findings show which states are least safe and which holidays are most deadly, including an interactive map to assess the threats around your home or travel route. We’ll also provide practical suggestions to help you arrive home safely.
By breaking down highway fatality statistics by state and then normalizing for population, we gained insight into which areas are most dangerous for holiday driving. Even on holidays that bring a national decrease in driving deaths (such as St. Patrick’s Day), certain states still have dramatic surges in roadway fatalities. See the table below for the most dangerous states across certain selected holidays.
States with fewer residents (like Delaware and Alaska) are mathematically susceptible to statistical variations. Yet, people living in sparsely populated areas may have to drive further distances to gather with family or friends during the holidays. For instance, the five deadliest states for Thanksgiving driving (Mississippi, Montana, South Carolina, New Mexico, and Oklahoma) collectively have a population density of one-third the national average.
Weather and tourism also play significant roles in a state’s roadway safety. Hawaii suffers drastic increases in driving fatalities around Christmas and New Year – when people from cold Northern states may flock to the island. Similarly, Florida endures a spike in driving deaths around New Year, when it features enticing temperatures and college bowl games to attract travelers. These conditions not only generally increase traffic but magnify dangers created by out-of-towners navigating unfamiliar roadways.
When averaging all holidays, other interesting trends emerged. For instance, Mississippi has the most roadway deaths per million residents during holiday travel (.60), but the Magnolia State is also the deadliest on an average day of the year. Delaware is the state that had the most dramatic increase in vehicle deaths across all holiday periods.
|Ten Deadliest States for Holiday Highway Travel||Percent Increase in Crash Fatalities on Holidays Compared to Regular Days|
Each holiday has a unique origin, its own spot on the calendar, and different celebratory traditions – a wide array of factors influencing roadway dangers. While an average holiday travel period brings a two percent increase in driving fatalities, the roadways are safer than usual during some holidays.
Three of the four most dangerous driving holidays are Labor Day (#1), Independence Day (#2), and Memorial Day (#4), marking the unofficial start, middle, and end of the summer season. Not coincidentally, the warmest months are also the busiest for road-trip vacations. AAA estimated that Americans logged almost 900 million annual trips of 50 miles or more between July and September in the years before COVID-19. Though getaways dipped during the pandemic, Labor Day (35 million trips) and Fourth of July (42 million trips) travel rebounded in 2022.
Collectively, roadway travel on these three summer holidays accounts for almost 1,600 fatal crashes per year, eclipsing the nearly 1,400 deadly collisions registered during the winter triumvirate of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.
Similarly, Thanksgiving (the fifth-deadliest driving holiday) traditionally sparks increased travel across the U.S. As a holiday marked by family reunions and a 4-day weekend for most, nearly 50 million travelers drove 50 miles or more during Thanksgiving 2022. With the additional stress of get-togethers and unpredictable November weather, it’s little wonder that vehicular fatalities increase around the holiday.
At first glance, Halloween appears an outlier among dangerous driving holidays. It isn’t a big travel day, and it typically occurs before heavy winter weather sets in. What Halloween does have, though, is a dramatic increase in risky pedestrian traffic. Costumed revelers and children crowd the streets on a night with a 43 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities. Additionally, All Hallows’ Eve is more of a party than a family or religious occasion, which could mean more drinking and driving.
Impaired driving contributes significantly to driving deaths on all holidays in our analysis. Still, Halloween‘s percentage of fatalities caused by driving under the influence ranks second only to Super Bowl Sunday.
The elevated dangers of holiday driving are daunting but shouldn’t scare you into staying home or plotting circuitous trips to navigate national hotspots. Elevating your awareness and following sensible advice can help your family return home safely any time of year.
Never Drink and Drive: When drinking is part of the celebration, ensure no one who has imbibed gets behind the wheel. Stay overnight, designate a sober driver, or use rideshares or public transportation. For particularly booze-centric holidays (Super Bowl Sunday, St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween), consider a party bus, pub crawl, or hotel rooms to eliminate any temptation to drive. Never take chances or listen to an impaired brain that believes it is “fine” – remember that buzzed driving is drunk driving.
Take your Time: Ideally, holidays include days away from work allowing for additional leisure – take advantage of being off the clock by loosening constraints on your schedule. Include extra travel time to accommodate traffic, construction, or bad weather. If you’re running behind, don’t speed or stress out. Instead, take a deep breath, relax, enjoy the ride, and ensure you arrive safely.
Avoid Distractions: Distracted driving is to blame for a recent increase in roadway fatalities following decades of steady decline. Reading text messages, checking social media, eating behind the wheel, or fiddling with in-dash entertainment are modern behaviors that divert attention, often with deadly results. Always keep your eyes/focus on the road and pull over if you’re tired or hungry. There will be plenty of time to post photos and stories once you arrive in one piece.
Be Careful in Winter Weather: If you’re going over the river and through the woods to your grandmother’s house in a cold and snowy climate, take extra care on icy roads and prepare your car for the season. Even if you are accustomed to slippery lanes, be conscious that other drivers may be less familiar (especially holiday travelers). Winterize your vehicle and pack a spare tire and emergency roadside kit.
Optimize Your Route and Schedule: Part of the danger of holiday driving is voluminous traffic; adjusting your departure time to avoid the most congested travel periods can save both time and your life. Taking advantage of modern travel technology (Google Maps, Waze, Accuweather, etc.) allows scouting out bottlenecks, accidents, and threatening weather in real-time and plot your way around them.
Hitting the open road for the holidays is an American tradition. Over the years, our vehicles have advanced from station wagons to minivans to electric SUVs, but our love of the road trip has remained.
Unfortunately, all of that travel can turn celebrations into tragedies. Roadway fatalities regularly increase around the holidays, with some states seeing deadly accidents double during long summer weekends.
Statistical analysis reveals which days and states are most dangerous for driving but offer little protection. Thankfully, some basic precautions can significantly increase the odds that a getaway ends safely.
Take care, plan well, be wise, and stay focused to do your part in reducing holiday accidents.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) maintains a census of fatal traffic accidents called the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). According to the FARS Analytical User’s Manual, “To qualify as a FARS case, the crash had to involve a motor vehicle traveling on a traffic way customarily open to the public, and must have resulted in the death of a motorist or a non-motorist within 30 days of the crash”. FARS data includes detailed information about all qualifying traffic accidents in the U.S. since 1975.
We averaged FARS data from 2016 to 2020 for deadly traffic accidents in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. that occurred on a holiday or the two days before and after that holiday. We considered New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day to be a holiday; therefore, our New Year’s analysis covered a six-day period each year, while other holidays were a five-day period each year. We then normalized these counts for the number of days and years we analyzed and the populations of the states they occurred in to derive the rate of fatal traffic accidents per day per million inhabitants for our comparisons.