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NSC: 2X+ Highway Fatality Boost for Xmas 2020

by Roger Lanctot | 12月 24, 2020

Christmas 2020 is here and the forecasters of travel behavior and highway fatalities have reached into their bag and pulled out some tidings of woe – with the most severe report coming from the National Safety Council. The NSC estimates that 340 people may die on U.S. roads this Christmas Day holiday period – extending from 6 p.m. today, Thursday, December 24 to 11:59 p.m. Sunday, December 27.

That 340 figure compares to the NSC’s estimate of 115 fatalities for Christmas 2019 – for which official National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data are not yet published. The NSC provides no explanation or context for the increase noting only its own uncertainty regarding the potential impact of COVID-19 on travel behavior and consumer decision making. Says the NSC: “Because of the unprecedented impact COVID-19 is having on social activities, the uncertainty of this year’s estimate is increased.”

The NSC further noted that in 2020, it estimates that 163 people died on New Year’s Day and 465 on Thanksgiving Day. The NSC says car travel has the highest fatality rate of any major form of transportation based on fatalities per passenger mile.

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SOURCE: Highway fatalities by location from Christmas 2018 - NHTSA, FARS

Alcohol and adverse weather conditions are prominent contributing factors to highway fatalities throughout the year, but especially during the holidays. Adverse weather conditions contribute to one third of all fatal crashes, according to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System of the NHTSA.

One of my complaints with popular navigation software in cars and in smartphone apps is the poor integration of weather data. I have personally taken to using WeatherBug which integrates real-time and predictive road weather data from Global Weather Corporation and local highway traffic camera video links from TrafficLand. WeatherBug also includes all local traffic and weather alerts among other useful tools.

It’s hard to know how many people will opt to drive over the holidays – and that is in spite of official guidance that people ought to remain in place. Automobile traffic on all roads in the U.S. in general is down only slight (-8.8%) from last year, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

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SOURCE: Federal Highway Administration comparison of miles traveled October 2019 vs. October 2020

AAA says it expects at least 34M fewer travelers compared to last year’s holiday season, as many as 84.5M Americans may still travel from Dec. 23 through Jan. 3, a decline in travel of at least 29%. It seems that AAA may be a bit out of touch – or at least a touch optimistic.

The AAA does acknowledge a strong preference among Americans to travel by car, with road trips accounting for 96% of holiday travel. AAA says up to 81M Americans will travel by car, a decline of at least 25% compared to last year. Auto travel is expected to replace some trips previously taken by bus, train or airplane, given the flexibility, security and comfort traveling by car provides.

Of course, travel by car is also the preferred strategy for avoiding state-level travel restrictions – which are particularly troublesome in the Northeastern quadrant of the U.S. where quarantines are prevalent.

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SOURCE: State-level travel restrictions compiled by Ballotpedia

Attractive as automotive travel may be, flyers are returning to the skies over the U.S. On Friday, December 18, the weekend before Christmas, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) scanned 1,066,757 passengers at airport checkpoints – the fifth time since the pandemic struck that volumes have exceeded one million.

Estimates suggest that air travel is currently about two-thirds pre-pandemic levels. While disappointing for the airlines and airports, the resurgence in air travel is a clear indication that consumers are undeterred by official COVID-19 cautions.

All indications are that Christmas 2020 is a time best spent sheltering in place. COVID-19 infections and fatalities are on the rise and highway fatalities are forecast to more than double. That kind of double-shot of bad tidings is enough to keep me curled up in front of the fireplace or Netflix or the PS5 or Xbox. The life you save by NOT travelling may be your own, a family member's, a neighbor's, or a friend's. And when the carolers arrive, don’t forget to mask up.

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