Special Report

The Most Dangerous Holidays in America

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AAA estimates that during this Christmas and New Year’s season, nearly 95 million Americans will hit the road, traveling long distances to visit friends and family. Unfortunately, during the end-of-year holiday travel period, nearly 27,900 Americans will be seriously injured in auto accidents, and more than 250 will die.

The National Safety Council (NSC) has released reports estimating the number of traffic accidents and fatalities that occur on major holidays, including Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Independence Day. According to the NSC, the deadliest holiday this year will likely be the Fourth of July, which saw an estimated 540 motorists die during the travel period, which spans roughly four days. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the NSC’s most recent estimates of motor vehicle accidents and casualties for the six big holidays.

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Ken Kolosh, manager of statistics at the NSC, explained that while travel during all these major holidays increases, the number of fatalities doesn’t always jump significantly. “The New Year’s holiday generally results in a significant increase in the number of fatalities when looking at a comparable period in same month,“ Kolosh noted. On the other hand, he added that in the case of Christmas, there isn’t a significant increase.

One major reason for the difference may be alcohol consumption. A separate report released by the Council this month shows that holidays like New Year’s Day and Independence Day are more likely to see people drink and drive. During the New Year’s period, between 2007 and 2011, an estimated 42% of traffic fatalities were the result of drinking and driving. On Christmas, just 35% of accidents were the result of drinking and driving, less than any of the major six holidays.

As might be expected, poor weather is regularly a factor in the accidents and deaths on the road. However, according to Kolosh, the actual effects of a severe blizzard on a major holiday are not what you might expect. “It’s a little bit counterintuitive, but good weather in winter months actually results in more fatalities,” he said. The reason for this, he explained, is people are less likely to travel more than absolutely necessary in bad weather.

For each holiday, the number of accidents fluctuates each year. In 2012, there were more than 350 fatalities during the Christmas travel period. This year, the National Safety Council estimates there will be just 105. The figure is lower largely because Christmas falls in the middle of the week and the travel period isn’t spread out over a weekend.

Traffic accidents and deaths during a holiday are also influenced by how many people actually travel that year. According to Kolosh, the strength of the economy influences the amount of driving Americans do. “Macroeconomic issues such as recessions greatly impact fatalities on the road,” he said. “Recessions actually tend to save lives on the road. We’ve reached some really historic lows during the last recession.”

Between 2003 and 2008, years when U.S. unemployment was relatively low, there were at least 370 traffic fatalities during the Christmas season. Between 2009 and 2011, when U.S. unemployment was at its worst, fatalities averaged around 250 per Christmas travel period.

To identify the most dangerous holidays, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the National Safety Council’s estimates for the six holidays it measures of traffic accidents and fatalities occurring during that holiday travel period. All figures for 2013 and 2014 are estimates from the NSF. Travel periods change year-to-year, depending on which day of the week the holiday occurs. The NSC also estimated the proportion of traffic fatalities caused by alcohol consumption. Those figures are based 2007-2011 averages.

These are the most dangerous holidays

6. Christmas Day
> Estimated fatalities: 105
> Deaths prevented by seatbelts: 38

According to AAA estimates, holiday travel at Christmas will increase this holiday season for the fifth year in a row. About 30% of Americans are expected to travel during this time. From the afternoon of Christmas Eve through Christmas Day, the NSC estimates there will be 105 deaths and an additional 11,200 severe injuries in traffic accidents. This is significantly lower than in previous years. Last year, there were 351 fatalities. This decline is largely because Christmas falls in the middle of the week and the traveling period is significantly shorter than usual. The worst Christmas in recent history was in 2001, when 575 people were killed.

5. New Year’s Day
> Estimated fatalities: 156
> Deaths prevented by seatbelts: 57

People are much more likely to drink and drive around January 1 than during any other major holiday. Nearly half of all 286 traffic fatalities during the New Year’s travel period in 2010 were alcohol related. Between 2007 and 2011, alcohol accounted for 42% of all traffic deaths during the holiday. By comparison, during Christmas, alcohol was a factor in just 35% of fatalities. The 2010 New Year’s period represented a low point for fatalities, at just 286. Traffic deaths ticked up to 348 by 2012. However, since the upcoming New Year’s day — like Christmas — falls in the middle of the week, the total travel period for the holiday is shorter, the estimated 156 fatalities would be the lowest in some time. Safety is another reason the number of fatalities is projected to be so low, as the NSC estimates that 57 lives will saved by seat belts during the holiday.

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4. Labor Day
> Estimated fatalities: 394
> Deaths prevented by seatbelts: 143

According to a AAA estimate, roughly 34.1 million Americans traveled at least 50 miles over the long Labor Day weekend this year. During the holiday period, which ran from Friday evening through midnight Monday, there were nearly 400 traffic-related deaths and more than 42,000 serious injuries, according to the NSC. If this year’s estimate is accurate, there will not have been more than 400 driving fatalities during Labor Day for five straight years. Between 1995 and 2008, there were at least 450 deaths every year.

3. Thanksgiving Day
> Estimated fatalities: 436
> Deaths prevented by seatbelts: 158

Over the six-year period between 2006 and 2011, traffic deaths around Thanksgiving accounted for nearly 15% of all vehicle-related fatalities in November. Between 2001 and 2007, driving fatalities during the holiday were in excess of 500 each year, peaking at 623 in 2006. Over the last five years, however, deaths have not exceeded 500. In 2011, just 375 people died on the road over the holiday, the fewest deaths since at least 1995. This year, the NSC estimates deaths rose to 436, with an additional 46,600 nonfatal injuries, which include all unintentional injuries that require medical consultation, over the travel period running from Wednesday evening through Sunday.

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2. Memorial Day
> Estimated fatalities: 407
> Deaths prevented by seatbelts: n/a

Memorial Day weekend — the first major holiday weekend of the year and widely considered the start of summer — has 13.1% more traffic deaths, on average, than a typical non-holiday weekend. The Monday of the four-day weekend, Memorial Day itself, has 32% more fatalities than the preceding three days, according to a study on holiday fatalities by Arnold and Cerrelli. The reason is likely the increased travel during the last long weekend day. The NSC estimate of 407 traffic deaths during the 2013 Memorial Day weekend is slightly higher than the 367 deaths during the 2012 holiday weekend. Since 2010, driving deaths during the holiday have remained below 400. Before 2010, the last time there were less than 400 deaths was 1998.

1. Independence Day
> Estimated fatalities: 540
> Deaths prevented by seatbelts: 196

The NSC estimates that the Fourth of July will go down as the most dangerous holiday for travelers in 2013 with 540 deaths and nearly 58,000 serious injuries. Drinking and driving played a major role in this. According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, between 2007 and 2011, alcohol accounted for 61 traffic fatalities per day over the Independence Day travel period, more than any other major holiday. Between 2007 and 2008, motor vehicle deaths around Independence Day more than doubled from 184 to 472. However, even the fatality rate that year did not approach the levels of the early 2000’s, when deaths exceeded 500 nearly every year. In 2006, there were 629 automobile-related deaths. In 2002, there were 662.

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