December 4, 2013

Study finds stressed holiday shoppers cause car crashes

Focus on the road apparently dwindles in the days leading up to Christmas.

The Washington Post

Unless you're expecting a gift certificate from an auto body shop for Christmas, turn off the radio, shut down your cellphone and focus on driving. Your fellow drivers are stressed-out and evil-minded this joyous holiday season.

click image to enlarge

In this 2011 file photo, traffic becomes backed up after a crash near the Maine Mall. According to new studies, traffic accidents spike during the final days leading up to Christmas.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

Almost a third of drivers say they become more aggressive on the roadway when holiday stress takes hold. According to new studies, traffic accidents spike during the final days leading up to Christmas as frenzied shoppers add their urgency to the daily commute.

"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, said David Brown, a University of Alabama professor who has studied holiday traffic. ". . . Their mind is on other things, and the next thing you know they're pulling out in front of somebody."

Brown said the tension and distraction combine to fuel what State Farm Insurance found in a report set to be released Tuesday. In addition to an overall finding that 32 percent of drivers were more likely to become aggressive during the holidays, State Farm zeroed in on parents and drivers younger than 49 as particularly prone to angry driving.

"People tend to drive aggressively when they are feeling stress in their lives, so it makes sense that this occurs during the holidays," said Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association.

More traffic and hair-trigger stress result in more accidents.

Brown showed that by analyzing 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.

"One of the most common forms of aggressive driving is excessive speeding," Adkins said. "Since speeding is such a big challenge, we suggest states consider aggressive-driving enforcement efforts rather than anti-speeding campaigns. The public doesn't support speeding enforcement yet is less opposed to aggressive-driving enforcement."

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.

"A lot of that is on private property, and if it's not above a certain [monetary] threshold and does not involve an injury, it may not get in the records," Brown said. "There may be a lot of these little fender benders in the parking lot that do not get reported."

But Christmas Day, which falls on a Wednesday this year, is a great day to drive.

"Nobody's out there on the roads. It's a very safe day," Brown said. "Even Christmas Eve is not as bad, because with the stores closing up early, as many of them do, there's a cessation of shopping."

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 said. "I would say the Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday before Christmas, those would be the bad days."

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. Brown sees a silver lining to that.

"If it ends up in gridlock, then you're going to save a lot of lives," he said. "But you'll have a lot of people aggravated, so it's kind of a trade-off."

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