With Thanksgiving behind us and Christmas just around the corner, the COVID-19 pandemic has made many Americans apprehensive about gathering for the holidays in 2020. A positive consequence of this amid the coronavirus crisis may be a decrease in car crash fatalities.
ValuePenguin researchers analyzed holiday-related motor vehicle fatality data from 2014 to 2018 — the latest available — at the federal and state levels. We found that Mississippi has the highest fatality rate over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Here’s what else we learned.
Table of contents
- 5 deadliest states for drivers during Thanksgiving, Christmas
- Alcohol, time of day, speed and other factors that contribute to crash fatalities during the holidays
- 3 in 10 crash fatalities during holidays occur on state highways
- Weather a factor in 44% of Christmas, 32% of Thanksgiving driving deaths
- 5 travel safety tips with Christmas approaching
- Mississippi (2.72 per 100,000 residents), South Dakota (2.71) and Louisiana and New Mexico (both 2.19) have the highest motor vehicle fatality rates over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
- New York (0.52 per 100,000 residents), Rhode Island (0.57) and Massachusetts (0.65) have the lowest motor vehicle fatality rates over these holidays.
- Drunken driving is a factor in 36% of Christmas and 35% of Thanksgiving holiday driving deaths.
- 64% of Christmas and 61% of Thanksgiving holiday driving fatalities occur at night.
- 44% of Christmas and 32% of Thanksgiving holiday driving fatalities occur in adverse weather.
5 deadliest states for drivers during Thanksgiving, Christmas
No. 1: Mississippi
Although Mississippi only has the 34th-largest population in the U.S., it has the highest holiday motor vehicle fatality rate per 100,000 residents — 2.72. Mississippi, with a population of nearly 3 million, had 47 fatalities around Thanksgiving and 34 around Christmas in the five-year period we examined.
These numbers may appear small when compared with the 197 Thanksgiving and 199 Christmas holiday fatalities in nearby Florida over the same period, but it’s a matter of perspective. Florida’s population is more than seven times that of Mississippi’s.
The Magnolia State isn’t unfamiliar with the top position on lists of this sort, as we previously found that it’s among the deadliest states for teen drivers.
No. 2: South Dakota
South Dakota had 14 vehicle fatalities around Thanksgiving and 10 around Christmas between 2014 and 2018. However, it’s important to note that South Dakota is the sixth-smallest state, with just under 900,000 residents.
Its rank may be a bit of a quandary when compared to its northern neighbor — North Dakota — which experienced less than half as many holiday vehicle fatalities, despite its similar population size. The answer may lie in the Black Hills. South Dakota’s more mountainous geography could give rise to more hazardous driving conditions as cold weather sets in and creates icy conditions.
No. 3 (tie): Louisiana
Louisiana, with the 25th-largest population of 4.6 million, had 57 vehicle fatalities around Thanksgiving and 45 around Christmas in the five-year period.
A truth emerges: Louisiana residents who are involved in and survive these accidents face more of an uphill financial battle than those in New Mexico — which tied for third — or almost any other state. The Southern state has been deemed a "judicial hellhole" due to the frequency and high cost of legal battles after car accidents.
Additionally, one of the deadliest highways in the U.S. — Interstate 10 — runs through New Orleans, its most populous city.
No. 3 (tie): New Mexico
Although New Mexico has a Thanksgiving and Christmas fatality rate equivalent to that of Louisiana, New Mexico's population is more than half the size at 2.1 million. It had 26 vehicle fatalities around Thanksgiving and 20 around Christmas between 2014 and 2018.
New Mexico may be considered a western state, but its roads are prone to icing between November and March due to average low temperatures that drop below freezing.
No. 5: Alabama
Alabama has the largest population among the states within the top five. The state, which is home to 4.9 million people, had 58 vehicle fatalities around Thanksgiving and 47 around Christmas in the five-year period.
Alabama is a neighbor to Mississippi, who shares borders with Louisiana. All three states are among the top five deadliest states for driving. These states share geographies and cultures, which may heavily influence their similarly high vehicle fatality rates around Thanksgiving and Christmas. nce of this amid the coronavirus crisis may be a decrease in car crash fatalities.
Alcohol, time of day, speed and other factors that contribute to crash fatalities during the holidays
Researchers found that higher blood alcohol content (BAC) levels — .08 and higher — increased the likelihood of vehicle fatalities over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
Vehicle fatalities associated with alcohol impairment increased by 22% over the Thanksgiving holidays and 26% over the Christmas holidays compared to the average on other days.
The increase in alcohol-related fatalities is evidence of an increased number of drunk drivers during these times, although neither holiday is the worst in this category. Instead, Memorial Day takes the top spot, with about 40% of accidents on that holiday being due to alcohol impairment.
Time of day
Compared to other days, the Thanksgiving holiday sees a 22% increase in nighttime vehicle fatalities. For Christmas, nighttime driving is related to a 28% increase over other days.
Night driving alone, however, may not be the more prominent factor in this increase in vehicle fatalities. The NHTSA data shows a pretty even split among daytime and nighttime crashes on other days, indicating that the time of day alone doesn’t increase or decrease risk.
Instead, driving at night over Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays likely compounds other driving risks, including weather-related limited visibility, higher potential for icy conditions and an increase in drivers under the influence of alcohol.
Speed, distractions and drowsiness
3 in 10 crash fatalities during holidays occur on state highways
More than 90% of long-distance Thanksgiving or Christmas travel is done by car, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). Consequently, this means many vehicle fatalities over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays take place on highways and interstates.
ValuePenguin researchers discovered that 30% of Thanksgiving and 28% of Christmas holiday fatalities occur on state highways. The next worst type of road during these holidays was local streets, which accounted for 22% of Thanksgiving and 24% of Christmas vehicle fatalities.
Interestingly, Christmas and Thanksgiving don’t relate to a higher percentage of deaths on any type of roadway. On any other day, 30% of vehicle fatalities occur on state highways, which is the same as Thanksgiving and just two percentage points higher than Christmas. There’s no more than a two-percentage-point variance between driving on all types of roadways on other days compared to driving over the Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays.
Of importance are that these statistics are all from before the coronavirus crisis. Many Americans who would have otherwise traveled by plane may instead opt to travel by car in 2020, potentially increasing the vehicle fatality rate across U.S. roads.
Weather a factor in 44% of Christmas, 32% of Thanksgiving driving deaths
On any other day, the weather played a role in 30% of all vehicle fatalities. That number jumped by 48% on Christmas, but just 7% on Thanksgiving.
The NHTSA data identified cloudy weather as the most common type of weather associated with vehicle fatalities. Cloudy conditions were identified in 15% of Thanksgiving and 21% of fatal Christmas accidents. Rain (mist) was the second most common weather type, cited in 9% of Thanksgiving and 11% of Christmas driving fatalities.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, both snow, as well as fog, smog and smoke, are around three times as likely to be cited in Christmas accidents versus accidents on other days. Still, both account for a comparatively small number of Christmas driving fatalities. Just 3% of Christmas holiday fatal vehicle accidents listed snow, while 3% listed fog, smog or smoke.
The data appears to indicate that the biggest risk for Thanksgiving driving is alcohol, while for Christmas, the weather is a far bigger risk, especially if alcohol impairment is also involved.
5 travel safety tips with Christmas approaching
- Upgrade your insurance policy with better coverage for long-distance travel. If you file a claim after a crash, your car insurer may raise your car insurance rate. You may need to weigh whether the potential increase is worth the cost, or whether it's better to pay out of pocket for any costs. Single-car accidents are particularly concerning during holiday travel. Any damage to your vehicle caused by wintry conditions generally won't be covered by a liability only insurance policy. Instead, you'll need to consider upgrading to a full coverage policy.
- Acquire roadside assistance (or determine if you already have it). The higher potential for accidents, combined with longer-distance driving, means you may want to investigate your roadside assistance options prior to travel. Your car insurance provider may offer limited roadside assistance. Many credit card companies, such as Chase, also offer roadside assistance as a credit card perk. You may also have available roadside assistance through your car manufacturer.
- Research COVID-19 restrictions prior to leaving your current state. Several states have instituted multiday quarantine periods for those traveling into the state who fit certain criteria. For example, anyone traveling to New York must obtain a COVID-19 test three days within arrival, quarantine for three days and then obtain another COVID-19 test on the fourth day of quarantine. These restrictions may cause some travelers to reconsider travel plans.
- Get a designated driver. The data points to an increase in alcohol-impaired driving on major holidays. Thanksgiving and Christmas are no exception, even if they aren't the worst holidays for drunken driving fatalities. Those who choose to travel on either Thanksgiving or Christmas may want to consider getting a designated driver who will commit to not drinking or call a ride-hailing service such as Uber or Lyft.
- Delay driving home until the next day. Nighttime driving significantly complicates other risks associated with driving over the holidays. Those who choose to travel for Thanksgiving may need to arrange to sleep over until morning. Not only will this reduce the potential impact of weather, but it'll also allow your body to recover if you've been drinking.
ValuePenguin researchers analyzed data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) to estimate the motor vehicle fatality rate per 100,000 residents over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays for every state. We also compared national data trends during holiday and non-holiday periods to find factors that may influence fatality rates over these holidays. Data covers the five-year period from 2014 to 2018, the latest available.