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Are You Safe on the Roads This Memorial Day Weekend? Travel Safety in the Time of COVID-19

With Memorial Day weekend here, and everyone eager to get out of their homes, and many outdoor destinations (like parks and beaches) now open, how safe will your holiday weekend be if you choose to take a road trip?

The answer may be that we simply don’t know.

For the first time in 20 years, the AAA has not issued a travel forecast, stating that the accuracy of the economic data used to create the forecast has been undermined by COVID-19. However, the AAA has indicated that anecdotal reports suggest that fewer people will be hitting the roads.

Add to the uncertainty the influence of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which continues to recommend that Americans stay home and avoid nonessential travel. A national survey conducted by Pew Research Center in late March found that 79 percent of U.S. adults have a favorable opinion of the CDC. So, it’s not a far leap to conclude that large numbers of Americans may heed the public health agency’s advice this holiday weekend.

With so much uncertainty at play, below are some factors to consider in assessing how safe you will be on the roadways this Memorial Day weekend, if you choose to travel.

Forecast by the National Safety Council

The National Safety Council (NSC), which has been advocating for safety for more than 100 years, has gone forward with making its traffic fatality estimate, notwithstanding the unprecedented circumstances we are living in.

NSC estimates that 366 people may die on U.S. roads this Memorial Day holiday period. The council advises that the uncertainty of its estimate has increased this year due to the unprecedented impact COVID-19 is having on social activities.

Lessons from the Past

Although the numbers may be unpredictable in the age of COVID-19, it may be instructive to look to history.

Memorial Day 2009, which came toward the end of the Great Recession, currently holds the record for the lowest travel volume, according to the AAA. That holiday weekend, 26.4 million Americans traveled by car. In Pennsylvania in 2009, there were a total of 2,902 crashes over the Memorial Day holiday, according to PennDOT in its “2009 Pennsylvania Crash Facts & Statistics Report.” The crashes resulted in 47 fatalities.

Of the crashes, 965 occurred pre-Memorial Day, 897 occurred on Memorial Day, and 1040 occurred post-Memorial Day. Of the deaths, 16 occurred pre-Memorial Day, 20 occurred Memorial Day, and 11 occurred post-Memorial Day.

Alcohol-Related Risks

According to the 2009 PennDOT report, alcohol use was involved in 436 of the crashes and 24 of the fatalities. But the pandemic has dramatically change how alcohol is sold and consumed in Pennsylvania.

On May 21, Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill allowing bars, restaurants and hotels with liquor licenses to sell cocktails to-go during the pandemic. The temporary law, which took effect immediately, allows for the sale of mixed drinks, between 4 and 64 ounces, in sealed containers, between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., Monday to Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., on Sunday. The drinks, which are still considered to be “open containers” under Pennsylvania law, may only be transported in a vehicle’s trunk or some other area of the vehicle not occupied by the driver or passengers.

So, assuming everyone adheres to the rules, people will be drinking their cocktails when they get home, and perhaps that will reduce incidents of DUI and save lives.

Another alcohol related factor: The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board announced that effective May 22, a total of 283 Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores in 48 counties will allow limited in-store public access. Previously, most of Pennsylvania’s liquor stores were offering curbside pickup for customers who called ahead.

With recommendations for social distancing still in place, Pennsylvanians may very well avoid get-togethers this holiday weekend and consume their liquor purchases at home.

Lighter Traffic, But More Speeding

As we previously blogged about, police across the U.S. are reporting that with lighter traffic during the pandemic, speeding is on the rise. Pennsylvania State Police report that in March 2019, they wrote 123 tickets for driving 100 mph or faster, compared with March 2020 when they wrote 131.

Speeding endangers everyone on the road, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, because it reduces the effectiveness of occupant protection equipment and increases crash severity, leading to more severe injuries.

According to the NSC, speeding also:

  • Reduces the amount of time the driver has to react in a dangerous situation to avoid a crash;
  • Increases vehicle stopping distance; and
  • Reduces the ability of road safety structures (such as guardrails, impact attenuators, crash cushions, median dividers, and concrete barriers) to protect vehicle occupants in a crash.

Conclusion

No matter how you choose to spend your Memorial Day weekend, we wish you and your family a safe holiday. Be careful out there.