Which holiday is the deadliest traffic day? 2024

Author pictureAuthor picture
Author picture
By:
Author picture
Edited by:
man driving a car during Christmas rush

Traffic accidents are a major cause of injury and death in the U.S., and the risk of being involved in a fatal crash increases during the holidays. In 2021, there were a total of 39,508 fatal crashes and 42,939 crash fatalities, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Transportation. These incidents coincided with over 3.13 billion vehicle miles traveled, amounting to a rate of 1.37 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.

Key insights

In 2021, the Independence Day holiday period had the highest average traffic fatalities per day of any major holiday period in the U.S. (159).

Jump to insight

Labor Day had the next highest average daily fatality rate (156), followed by Memorial Day (139).

Jump to insight

Across every major holiday between 2017 and 2021, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee made up the U.S. region with the most fatal holiday crashes.

Jump to insight

Northern regions of the U.S. are more dangerous for holiday driving during the spring and summer holidays, while southern regions are more hazardous during the fall and winter holidays.

Jump to insight

In 2021, alcohol-impaired fatalities represented 31% of total driving deaths but accounted for 36% to 41% of holiday-related traffic deaths.

Jump to insight

Holiday weekends ranked by fatality rate

Various factors contribute to fatal accidents, including driver distraction, fatigue, recklessness, intoxication and aggressive tactics. Although people look forward to holidays as times of connection and relaxation, the challenges of holiday road travel can expose us to dangerous driving conditions that result in tragic consequences.

Analyses of holiday-related crashes and fatalities look at incidents that occur over holiday weekend periods, not just on the official holidays themselves. This is because Americans often use an entire holiday period, including days that fall on either side of the actual holiday, to take trips, visit family and engage in other activities that involve travel.

The National Safety Council (NSC) provides data that allows each major holiday period to be ranked by average traffic fatalities per day. In 2021, average traffic deaths per day during the major holiday periods were as follows:

The spring and summer holidays (Independence Day, Memorial Day and Labor Day) had the highest average deaths per day, while the fall and winter holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day) had the lowest average per day. According to the NSC’s analysis, this trend holds true going back as far as 2019.

The NSC also estimates current-year holiday traffic fatalities by relying on forecasted data for the coming holiday month as well as historical holiday and monthly fatality data. The 2023 estimates of total traffic deaths during each holiday period are:

Based on these estimates, in 2023, Independence Day and Thanksgiving were two of the deadliest holiday periods in the U.S. in terms of total traffic fatalities.

Deadliest holidays by major city

The danger that a given holiday presents to drivers and passengers is far greater in some cities than others.

Fatal motor vehicle crashes by major holiday period and largest U.S. city from 2017 to 2021

The table below examines the number of fatal crashes during major holidays for the 10 most populated U.S. cities.

Source: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 2023

Additional points of interest include:

  • Among the cities above, the largest number of fatal Memorial Day crashes occurred in Dallas and Houston.
  • Los Angeles and Chicago experienced a relatively high number of fatal crashes during the Independence Day holiday period.
  • New York City and Philadelphia, both East Coast cities, experienced more fatal crashes on Labor Day than on other holidays.
  • Dallas experienced a notably higher volume of fatal crashes during the Memorial Day and Thanksgiving holiday periods than during other holidays.
  • Los Angeles, Houston and Phoenix had the highest number of fatal crashes over the Christmas period.
  • Los Angeles saw consistently high fatal crash totals across most major holiday periods.

Deadliest holidays by region

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also provides data on fatal motor vehicle crashes by holiday period and geographic region.

Fatal motor vehicle crashes from 2017 to 2021 by U.S. region and major holiday period

The chart below examines the number of fatal crashes during major holidays by U.S. region.

Source: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2023

The southeastern region, which comprises Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee, consistently had the highest number of fatal crashes from 2017 to 2021, for each major holiday period. Fatal crashes in this region are also the most frequent year-round. Another regional grouping of other southern states — Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas — wasn’t far behind on the same metrics.

The large, combined populations of these southern areas are likely a contributing factor to their relatively high counts of fatal motor vehicle crashes. However, the high numbers of fatal crashes in these regions may also be related to driving quality, which is particularly poor in cities like Memphis, Tennessee; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Macon, Georgia, according to a ConsumerAffairs analysis. Also of note is that Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina rank among the top ten states with the worst road conditions.

Holidays by percentage of regional traffic fatalities

A holiday’s relative road lethality varies by region. The data points below correlate different holiday periods with the regions where those holidays made up the largest percentage of total traffic fatalities.

  • Memorial Day accounted for 1.28% of fatal crashes in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.
  • Independence Day accounted for 1.63% of fatal crashes in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.
  • Labor Day accounted for 1.49% of fatal crashes in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.
  • Thanksgiving accounted for 1.5% of fatal crashes in Arizona, California and Hawaii.
  • Christmas accounted for 0.97% of fatal crashes in Arizona, California and Hawaii.

In northern regions, fatal traffic crashes are more likely to occur in the spring and summer holidays than in the fall and winter holidays. The opposite is true for southern regions, where fall and winter holiday periods have a higher incidence of fatal crashes.

Holiday weekend fatalities vs. non-holiday weekends

The NSC compared traffic deaths during major holiday periods occurring over the past six years with traffic fatality data from the weeks immediately before and after the holidays (referred to below as non-holiday periods).

Source: The National Safety Council, 2023; *The New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day and Christmas holiday periods and comparison periods lasted 3.25 days.; *The Independence Day and Thanksgiving holiday periods and comparison periods lasted 4.25 days.

The NSC assumes travel is greater during holidays than non-holidays. Based on the data and this assumption, the risk of traffic-related death during both Thanksgiving and Christmas is, in fact, lower during the holidays versus non-holiday periods.

The other four holidays had more fatalities than non-holiday periods. However, without knowing the actual changes in traffic volumes, it’s hard to be sure that travel during these holidays is riskier overall than during comparable non-holiday periods.

Holiday weekends and drunk driving

Unsurprisingly, due to drunk driving, there’s a relationship between holiday weekends and fatalities.

In 2021, alcohol-impaired traffic fatalities involving a driver with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 grams per deciliter or higher accounted for 31% of total traffic deaths. However, that percentage was higher,  for traffic deaths during major holidays:

  • 40% of Memorial Day fatalities
  • 39% of Independence Day fatalities
  • 41% of Labor Day fatalities
  • 36% of Thanksgiving fatalities
  • 36% of Christmas Day fatalities
  • 40% of New Year’s Day fatalities

Reducing the risk of an alcohol-related holiday crash

During the holidays, driving in daylight may help reduce the risk of being involved in an alcohol-related crash during the holidays. Over Thanksgiving 2021, more alcohol-affected drivers who were involved in crashes did so during nighttime hours, compared with during the day. In 2021, the times of day that saw the highest percentages of alcohol-impaired fatal crashes were between midnight and 2:59 a.m. (55% of crashes during that time) and 9 p.m. and 11:59 p.m. (42%).

Those who live in states with higher proportions of alcohol-impaired fatalities may want to exercise extra caution to avoid drunk drivers. In 2021, the states with the highest percentages of alcohol-impaired traffic fatalities among their total traffic fatalities were Montana (43%) and Texas (42%).

Best and worst times to travel by car

Fatal crashes in the U.S. are more likely to occur on weekends during the evening hours than at other times of the week. With 6,735 fatal crashes in 2021, Saturday was the deadliest day of the week to be on the road, followed by Friday, Sunday and Thursday.

Evening commuting hours are another less-than-ideal time to be on the road. In 2021, the time period from 3 p.m. to 8:59 p.m., Monday through Friday, accounted for 9,015 fatal crashes.

Additionally, when it comes to preventing accidents related to fatigue, if possible, it’s best to avoid hitting the road in the late afternoon or during the early hours of the morning (between midnight and 6 a.m.). These are the highest-risk time periods for crashes related to drowsy driving.

Finally, keep in mind:

  • Holiday travelers who choose to drive during rush hour periods will have to share the roads with commuters, creating surges in traffic volumes. What’s more, rush hour often begins earlier than usual on the first day of a holiday weekend.
  • The noon to early afternoon hours are often a good time to travel. But doing so on the holiday itself, especially for summer celebrations like Memorial Day, may best be avoided when possible.

Safety tips for holiday driving

Deadly road accidents are tragic but preventable, and each person who uses the roads plays an important role in reducing the overall risk. Exercising care and good judgment is especially important during the holidays when stress levels rise, routines change and dangerous behaviors like drunk driving can increase.

When considering holiday road travel, it’s crucial to be thoughtful and plan ahead.

  • Consider the time of day, day of the week, any local conditions and try to arrange travel at a time that minimizes the risk of being involved in a traffic accident.
  • Give yourself plenty of time to get to your destination to avoid the temptation to speed or engage in other unsafe driving behaviors.
  • Keep stress levels low and get plenty of rest prior to embarking on your trip. Plan ahead to avoid distractions while on the road.
  • If you have the option, consider adjusting your schedule, such as working remotely from your holiday destination, to avoid more dangerous travel times.
  • When traveling, ensure that every vehicle occupant is wearing a seat belt.

FAQ

Overall, which holiday is the most dangerous for driving?

Independence Day ranked highest for average traffic fatalities per day in 2021 and had the highest estimated fatalities of any holiday for 2023. When compared with similar non-holiday periods, on average, Independence Day also had the highest percentage increase in traffic fatalities (16.1%) of any major holiday.

What holiday has the most drunk drivers?

In 2021, alcohol-impaired fatalities made up 41% of the total traffic fatalities that occurred on Labor Day, which was the highest percentage of alcohol-impaired fatalities on any holiday. Alcohol-impaired fatalities made up 40% of total traffic fatalities on both New Year’s Day and Memorial Day.

What time of year has the most road traffic?

In 2022, the summer months had the highest traffic volumes — more specifically, the month of August when the Federal Highway Administration calculated an estimated 288.4 billion vehicle miles of travel across the U.S.

Note: In general, NSC and NHTSA use slightly different methods for measuring holiday time periods, with NHTSA holidays being 0.25 days longer. This article only makes direct comparisons within data sets and analyses, not across them.


References

  1. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “National Statistics: Summary.” U.S. Department of Transportation. Evaluated Nov. 28, 2023.Link Here
  2. National Safety Council. “Memorial Day.” National Safety Council. Evaluated Nov. 29, 2023.Link Here
  3. National Safety Council. “Independence Day.” National Safety Council. Evaluated Nov. 29, 2023.Link Here
  4. National Safety Council. “Labor Day.” National Safety Council. Evaluated Nov. 29, 2023.Link Here
  5. National Safety Council. “New Year’s Day.” National Safety Council. Evaluated Nov. 29, 2023.Link Here
  6. National Safety Council. “Thanksgiving Day.” National Safety Council. Evaluated Nov. 29, 2023.Link Here
  7. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Fatality and Injury Reporting System Tool (FIRST).” U.S. Department of Transportation. Evaluated Nov. 28, 2023.Link Here
  8. National Safety Council. “Christmas Day.” National Safety Council. Evaluated Nov. 29, 2023.Link Here
  9. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Thanksgiving - Impaired Driving (buzzed).” U.S. Department of Transportation. Evaluated Nov. 30, 2023.Link Here
  10. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Fatal Crashes and Percent Alcohol-Impaired Driving, by Time of Day and Crash Type.” U.S. Department of Transportation. Evaluated Nov. 30, 2023.Link Here
  11. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Traffic Safety Facts 2021 Data: State Alcohol-Impaired-Driving Estimates.” U.S. Department of Transportation. Evaluated Nov. 30, 2023.Link Here
  12. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Crashes: Time.” U.S. Department of Transportation. Evaluated Nov. 30, 2023.Link Here
  13. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Drowsy Driving.” U.S. Department of Transportation. Evaluated Nov. 30, 2023.Link Here
  14. Federal Highway Administration. “Travel Monitoring: Traffic Volume Trends.” U.S. Department of Transportation. Evaluated Dec. 1, 2023.Link Here
  15. National Safety Council. “Christmas Day.” National Safety Council. Evaluated Mar 25, 2024.Link Here
  16. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Crashes: Alcohol.” U.S. Department of Transportation. Evaluated Mar 25, 2024.Link Here

Figures

Back to ConsumerAffairs

Journal of Consumer Research