AutoInsurance.com
November 21, 2022

Worst Winter Holidays and States for Deadly Car Crashes

Car crashes during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's celebrations kill 1,500 people yearly.

Two toy cars collide in front of holiday lights

Winter festivities mean reunions and revelry, but they also hold the potential for tragedy. Many Americans travel to gather with family and friends; unfortunately, they don’t all arrive safely.

Holiday driving is hazardous due to ice on the ground, the stress in the air, and tasty seasonal drinks at parties. Thanksgiving celebrations, in particular, put more cars on the road and increase the frequency of deadly car accidents. Nationally, there are fewer road fatalities during Christmas and New Year’s compared to non-holidays – but some states have troubling surges.

Our team dug into recent Fatality Analysis Reporting System data to discover the most dangerous locations for holiday driving. Armed with this information and the helpful tips at the end of the article, you’ll be equipped to arrive safely at your holiday celebrations.

Key Statistics

  • On average, about 1,500 deadly auto crashes occur each year during the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s holidays. The days surrounding New Year’s Eve and Day are the worst, with 530 deadly car wrecks each year on average.

  • At Thanksgiving, Mississippi, Montana, and South Carolina had the highest rates of fatal crashes per million residents compared to other states.

  • South Dakota, Alabama, and Mississippi had the highest deadly crash rates during Christmastime.

  • In recent years, there were 50 percent more deadly car accidents in certain states during the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s holidays than non-holidays.

  • Forty percent of deadly wrecks around New Year’s Eve and Day involve alcohol-impaired drivers. Christmas wasn’t far behind, with about 37 percent of deadly crashes involving alcohol in recent years.

Thanksgiving Threats: The Most Dangerous States for Turkey Day Trips

This year, experts expect about 55 million Americans to to take to the roads for Thanksgiving, which means holiday travel will be close to pre-pandemic levels.1 This massive migration will happen even though gas prices are about 12 percent higher this year than last.2

Across the country, there are about four percent more crashes on and around Thanksgiving compared to regular days. If you’re packed tight into the family wagon during the third week of November, take extra care in these ten most dangerous states. Our map chronicling fatal car crash frequency shows Thanksgiving’s deadliest hotspots mostly fall below the Mason-Dixon line.

Deadliest states for car crashes during the Thanksgiving holiday Fatal accidents per day per million residents
Mississippi .64
Montana .64
South Carolina .60
New Mexico .48
Oklahoma .46
Alabama .45
Missouri .42
Louisiana .41
Florida .41
North Carolina .40

These numbers don’t tell the whole story. Seven of these ten states (all but Missouri, Florida, and North Carolina) rank among the ten deadliest on any day of the year.

Mississippi consistently ranks as the deadliest place to drive in the U.S., averaging .56 fatal accidents per million residents on an average day. Not only first in roadway deaths, but Mississippi is also most dangerous on Thanksgiving and New Year’s and third most fatal on Christmas. Its lax safety laws, poorly maintained rural roads,3 and high DUI numbers are all risk factors for fatal crashes.4

To find where conditions grow more treacherous on Turkey Day, we calculated the ten states with the most significant increase in roadway fatalities during the long Thanksgiving weekend.

State Increase in number of fatal accidents during Thanksgiving compared to non-holidays
1) Montana 45%
2) California 26%
3) Maryland 26%
4) Wisconsin 25%
5) Utah 25%
6) Connecticut 21%
7) South Carolina 20%
8) Texas 19%
9) Mississippi 14%
10) North Carolina 13%

Stress is one factor that likely contributes to these increased Thanksgiving collisions. Most treasure the love of a shared family meal, yet such settings also fuel conflict that can result in distracted driving. Thanksgiving weekend also commences the holiday shopping season. In addition to the anxiety of family visits, many tense drivers fight their way to crowded Black Friday sales.

Alcohol is a key contributor to auto fatalities and tends to weigh more heavily in holiday accidents. According to FARS reporting, more than one in three fatal Thanksgiving crashes involve an impaired driver.5

Percentage of Thanksgiving roadway deaths involving alchohol-related drivers: 34%

Holiday driving distances also influence the crash calculus – the further motorists must travel for a get-together, the greater chance there is for tragedy. The population density of Thanksgiving’s five deadliest driving states is only 37 people per square mile (compared to the national average of 94). This indicates that families in Mississippi, Montana, South Carolina, New Mexico, and Oklahoma may spend more time in the car en route to their turkey dinners. Likewise, average annual driving distances in those states are 20 percent higher than the national norm.6

Some of these same factors endanger motorists at Christmas, though the deadliest states for yuletide drivers are different than the Thanksgiving threats.

States With Most Christmas Car Catastrophes

Though fewer and fewer Americans now identify as Christians, more than 90 percent still celebrate Christmas.7 This indicates that many families, regardless of belief, seize the opportunity for a well-earned winter vacation.

Last year, 100 million citizens planned car trips of 50 miles or more between Christmas and New Year’s,8 with similar numbers projected this year. As airline ticket costs have ballooned, more Christmas celebrants may choose to drive to their holiday gatherings.

Deadliest states for car crashes during the Christmas holiday Fatal accidents per day per million residents
1) South Dakota .55
2) Alabama .51
3) Mississippi .50
4) Delaware .50
5) Arkansas .45
6) South Carolina .45
7) Florida .44
8) New Mexico .42
9) Georgia .39
10 Maine .39

Though roadway fatalities slightly dip during Christmas (with many staying indoors to unwrap presents and stay warm), the Noel holiday has averaged 438 deadly car crashes annually in recent years. Wherever your travels take you, danger may lurk on the highways – particularly around warm Gulf of Mexico states, as demonstrated on the map above.

Though driving deaths drop during Christmas compared to non-holidays, several states have seen significant increases in fatal auto accidents in the days before, on, and after Christmas These ten have had the highest jumps.

State Increase in number of fatal accidents during Christmas compared to non-holidays
1) South Dakota 65%
2) Delaware 62%
3) Alaska 54%
4) Hawaii 49%
5) Maryland 32%
6) Maine 28%
7) Florida 16%
8) Connecticut 15%
9) New Jersey 14%
10) Georgia 5%

Whether hot or cold, wintertime weather can create dangerous conditions on roads. Colder states (like South Dakota, Alaska, Maine, and Connecticut) endure icy road conditions, while warmer havens (Hawaii, Florida, and Georgia) encourage outdoor activity and attract vacationing families. Tourist destinations prove deadlier for motorists due to increased traffic and because out-of-state drivers on unfamiliar roads present a greater risk.9

Alcohol also plays a significant part in Christmas roadway deaths. The number of accidents influenced by intoxication is even higher on Christmas than on Thanksgiving.

Percentage of Christmas roadway deaths involving alchohol-related drivers: 37%

Sadly, drinking causes even more deadly accidents during one of the year’s biggest parties, just as the calendar changes.

New Year’s Fears: Don’t Drop the Ball on Safety

Thanksgiving primarily celebrates family, while Christmas focuses on faith –  New Year’s is a party for the whole population. Some gather in Times Square, others cruise the Vegas strip, but many head south to warm weather and theme parks. Amidst all that driving, more than 500 accidents will claim lives on average during the New Year’s holiday, according to recent transportation data. We visualized the geographical distribution of deadly wrecks below.

Deadliest states for car crashes during the New Year’s holidays Fatal accidents per day per million residents
1) Mississippi .57
2) Florida .49
3) South Carolina .47
4) New Mexico .46
5) Oklahoma .41
6) Alabama .41
7) West Virginia .41
8) North Dakota .40
9) Tennessee .37
10) Oregon .36

The six deadliest states for New Year’s car crashes are all warmer weather locations (their average December temperature of 58F is 15 degrees above the national average10). The Sunshine State also has the most significant rise in deadly accidents over the New Year’s holiday.

State Increase in number of fatal accidents around New Year’s Eve and Day compared to non-holidays
District of Columbia 85%
Florida 28%
Alaska 28%
Oregon 26%
Hawaii 24%
North Dakota 10%
West Virginia 4%
Wisconsin 2%
Texas 2%
Mississippi 1%

In addition to Florida’s alluring warm weather and blue waters, the state’s famous Disney World is a top New Year’s destination. In fact, New Year’s Eve tickets for Magic Kingdom were sold out as early as October. Additionally, the state hosts eight college bowl games to close out the football season. That many visitors in such a short time makes for dangerous roadways.

New Year’s is also the winter holiday when drunk drivers claim the most lives. Over the past five years, alcohol played a part in four of every ten fatal New Year’s crashes, including a high of 49 percent in 2020.

Percentage of New Year's roadway deaths involving alchohol-related drivers

With so many Americans hitting the road for the holidays, car accidents are a given. But following simple tips can increase your chances of celebrating the start of 2023 in good health.

Holiday Driving Safety Tips

Simply avoiding the most dangerous states on each winter holiday is not a practical safety solution. Instead, try incorporating these sensible practices in travel plans to keep your family from becoming a statistic.

Steer clear of drinking and driving: Mixing alcohol and automobiles is unacceptable, illegal, and dangerous. As we’ve seen, impaired driving is especially deadly around the holidays. Never get behind the wheel if celebrating the season involves nog, glögg, champagne, punch, or any potent potable. If you plan to imbibe, designate a sober driver, call a taxi, use public transportation, or even sleep it off on your host’s couch after the party.

Plan ahead: Preparation can neutralize many driving dangers.  Reviewing your route can avoid confusion at key interchanges. Checking weather reports can help you dodge dangerous conditions. Selecting an optimal departure time can help you avoid the worst holiday traffic. A few extra minutes invested before leaving your driveway can make a world of difference on the road.

Prepare your vehicle: With a long drive ahead, it always makes sense to have your car serviced and all systems checked. Correctly fill your tires (including the spare) and pack the car safely (don’t obstruct mirrors and secure your loads). It’s also a good idea to keep an emergency kit in your car, including jumper cables, survival blankets, road flares, phone chargers, non-perishable foods, flashlights, and first aid supplies, along with other road trip accessories.

Take your time: You might be lucky enough to have some vacation time during the holidays, so take advantage of it. Be sure to pad your itinerary for traffic, construction, or bad weather. Remember that arriving safely is more important than being timely to those who love you most. There’s no need to rush, stress out, or speed – they’ll save you a slice of fresh pumpkin pie, and getting there is half the fun.

Avoid anxiety and distractions while driving: Edgy emotions and invasive screens take your attention away from the road. Keep family drama to a minimum by avoiding thorny topics, staying in the present, and focusing more on love than grudges. Don’t drown in dread on your way to a party or bring any unease home. As always, do not text when you drive. Clear roads and heads make for safe winter driving – ensure you do your part.

Conclusion: Drive Safely During the Holidays

Holiday travel might be faster and safer if we all had magical sleighs like Santa, but for now, we must navigate over the river and through the woods with four wheels and GPS apps.

This year, 43 percent of Americans plan to travel between Thanksgiving and New Year’s,11 and more travelers than usual will drive due to inflated airfare expenses. This means more cars on the road and expanded potential for tragedy.

Longer road trips, family stress, distracted driving, and motorists impaired by alcohol all increase the likelihood of fatal holiday accidents. Avoiding the deadliest locations and most dangerous habits can keep you and your family safer on the road.

Be careful, be joyous, and enjoy the upcoming season.

Our Data

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 US since 1975.

We averaged FARS data from 2016-2020 for deadly traffic accidents in all 50 states and DC 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 each be a holiday, and therefore our New Year’s analysis covered a six-day period in each year, while other holidays were a five-day period in each year. We then normalized all of 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.

Citations

  1. Thanksgiving Travel Ticks Up, Just Shy of Pre-Pandemic Levels. AAA Newsroom. (2022, November 15).
    https://newsroom.aaa.com/2022/11/thanksgiving-travel-ticks-up-just-shy-of-pre-pandemic-levels

  2. U.S. Retail Gas Price. YCharts. (Accessed 2022, November 14).
    https://ycharts.com/indicators/us_gas_price

  3. News Release: Mississippi’s Rural Roads Have Significant Deficiencies & High Fatality Rates. Trip. (2022, October 13).
    https://tripnet.org/reports/rural-connections-mississippi-news-release-10-13-2022/

  4. Sobering Facts: Alcohol-Impaired Driving in Mississippi. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020).
    https://www.cdc.gov/transportationsafety/pdf/impaired-driving-new/CDC-impaired-driving-fact-sheet-Mississippi.pdf

  5. People Killed and Percentage Alcohol-Impaired Driving During Holiday Periods, 1982-2020 (Table 14). National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (2020).
    https://cdan.nhtsa.gov/tsftables/tsfar.htm

  6. Functional System Travel, Annual Vehicle – Miles. Highway Statistics Series 2019. Federal Highway Administration. (2020, September 30). https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics/2019/vm2.cfm

  7. What Percentage of Americans Celebrate Christmas? Gallup. (2019, December).
    https://news.gallup.com/poll/272357/percentage-americans-celebrate-christmas.aspx

  8. ‘Tis the Season: More than 109 Million Americans to Travel for the Holidays. AAA Newsroom. (2021, December 14).
    https://newsroom.aaa.com/2021/12/tis-the-season-more-than-109-million-americans-to-travel-for-the-holidays/

  9. Drivers on Unfamiliar Roads and Traffic Crashes. University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. (2010, December). https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/78448/102704.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

  10. Winter Temperature Averages for Every State. Current Results. (2021).
    https://www.currentresults.com/Weather/US/average-state-temperatures-in-winter.php

  11. High Inflation Has Many Americans Tweaking Their Holiday Travel Plans. CNBC. (2022, October 5).
    https://www.cnbc.com/2022/10/05/high-inflation-has-many-americans-tweaking-their-holiday-travel-plans.html