The busiest travel day of the year is behind us, and this year's Thanksgiving Day holiday was particularly treacherous because of a storm system that blew through the entire eastern half of the country last week.
Brace yourself, though, for the worst is yet to come. We're not referring to another upcoming storm -- although winter weather always makes driving hazardous -- but rather the onslaught of the Christmas shopping season. Numerous studies have shown a noticeable spike in the number of traffic accidents in the days leading up to the Yuletide holiday as frenzied shoppers become more aggressive on the roadway.
"The pressure of the holiday, the pressure of having to find something and running all over to find it and all of those things would tend to distract" drivers, David Brown, a University of Alabama professor who has studied holiday traffic, told the Washington Post recently. " Their mind is on other things, and the next thing you know they're pulling out in front of somebody."
Brown analyzed 10 years of crash data in Alabama. The results drew a bull's-eye on the six days around Christmas. That hectic period registered 18 percent more accidents than the heaviest travel period of the year -- Thanksgiving weekend -- and 27 percent more than the "highly lubricated" New Year's Eve.
The Highway Loss Data Institute, an industry research group with access to insurance records, says claims for collisions increase by almost 20 percent in December. And not all parking-lot collisions get reported to police or insurance companies.
With Thanksgiving falling later than usual this year, there are fewer days to shop for Christmas, and that could result in more traffic congestion around malls and downtown shopping areas. What makes this scenario particularly dangerous is not just the stress-induced aggressive driving habits of motorists, but also the unpredictable nature of pedestrians who are distracted by their single-minded mission of finding the perfect gift for everyone on their list.
We've heard numerous complaints in recent years about how pedestrians in downtown Brattleboro do not use common sense or basic safety precautions when crossing the street. Despite an ample number of crosswalks and traffic signals designed to keep them safe, too often pedestrians have been known to cross wherever and whenever they feel like it. Even if that doesn't cause an accident on the spot it's sure to induce even more stress in drivers, and quite likely lead to more aggressive behavior.
This year, the worst traffic may fall on the Friday before Christmas. "You've got the shoppers, the commuting traffic, and you've got people leaving for the weekend. It's a mix of traffic that's kind of lethal," Brown told the Post. "I would say the Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday before Christmas, those would be the bad days."
We urge everyone -- drivers and pedestrians alike -- to use extra caution this holiday season. Don't let the stress, the distractions and the general craziness of the season lead to tragedy. And remember what's really important this time of year: Having loved ones alive and well to celebrate the holiday with.