A new report by the National Safety Council estimates that 439 Americans will be killed on the road this Memorial Day weekend, the highest number since 2009 and about 100 more than in 2014. (The final number for 2015 is not yet known.) Another 50,500 will be seriously injured, the report predicts.
The main reason this Memorial Day weekend is shaping up to be so deadly is that there have been more people on the road lately. And more drivers means more traffic fatalities.
"It is really part of a larger trend that is occurring on our roadways right now. During the recession, a lot of habits changed, and fewer people were dying on our roads" because fewer people were driving, said Ken Kolosh, manager of statistics at the National Safety Council, a nonprofit safety advocacy group. Kolosh is one of the authors of the report, which came out Monday.
The number of traffic deaths per year had been above 42,000 since the mid-1990s, but in 2008 and 2009, the number plummeted to about 40,000 and then 36,000, respectively. It stayed low for six years, but the downward trend started to reverse in 2015 as employment rates picked up, gas prices fell and people started driving more, Kolosh said.
Between 2014 and 2015, Kolosh and his colleagues saw a 3.5% increase in the number of miles driven and an 8% increase in the number of traffic fatalities.
The number of fatalities often increases faster than the number of drivers for a variety of reasons, Kolosh said. There could have been a disproportionately large increase in the number of young drivers, the group at highest risk of traffic fatalities, as the economy improved. Automobile insurance data suggest recent increases in the number of young drivers on policies, he added.
Traffic and traffic fatalities also have been picking up overall in the past year, making summertime -- and possibly Memorial Day weekend in particular -- an especially risky time to be on the road.
Blame the season
"It's a little counterintuitive, because most people would think you are more likely to die on the roads during bad winter driving months," Kolosh said. "But during bad winter driving months, a lot of people try not to drive, so mileage is down."
The number of traffic fatalities is usually lowest in the dead of winter and starts rising with the temperature. The number of deaths continues to rise until October or November for reasons that are mysterious, Kolosh said, but could be due to days getting shorter and people driving in the dark more.
It is unclear whether the number of deaths is actually higher over Memorial Day weekend than other weekends in May. The report found that, for the years 2009 to 2014, there was only a slight increase during the Friday evening to Monday night of the holiday weekend when compared with the same days the week before and after. For 2016, the report predicted that about 12% of all traffic deaths in May will take place over Memorial Day weekend.
Two issues conspire to result in more motor vehicle crashes, accidents and deaths over the holiday weekend and in the summertime: More people are on the road, and more people are driving recreationally, said Robert Foss, senior research scientist at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center.
When people drive recreationally, as opposed to functionally, such as to work, school or the grocery store, they tend to drive on roads and in conditions they are less familiar with, and they are thus more likely to make a mistake, said Foss, who was not involved in the new report.
Other possible dangers with summertime driving could be that people are more likely to speed and to drink alcohol before getting behind the wheel, Kolosh said. These factors are each associated with about 30% of all traffic fatalities. Not wearing a seat belt is linked with another 30%, but that risk factor probably occurs more consistently throughout the year, he added.
Foss questions whether drunken driving is responsible for any more deaths in the summer than the rest of the year, however. "Most of the crashes resulting from driving after drinking are people who tend to drink every day, and that does not change in the summer," he said.
How to reduce risk
Given that the rates of traffic deaths are largely due to how much people are on the road, the best way to reduce your risk is to drive shorter distances or to not drive at all. "I often tell people I can cut your driving risk in half: Just drive half as much," Foss said.
Of course, that is not the advice people want to hear as they are packing for the beach this weekend or planning the perfect warm-weather getaway. Foss offered a couple of compromises. Take the highway instead of local roads, because all the traffic is moving in the same direction, and you will not have cars crossing in front of you. And choose a route that is congested. As irritating as that may sound, slower traffic is often safer.
For his part, Kolosh expects that traffic fatality rates will rebound to their pre-recession levels "unless we are able to make some true changes to driver safety." Advances in safety features, such as forward collision warning and blind spot warning, are estimated to reduce the number of traffic fatalities by 10,000 a year, similar to the effects of the Great Recession, he said.
However, it will be about a decade before just about every car on the road has these features, Kolosh said. Until then, and even afterward, it is important to take all the usual safety steps: buckle your seat belt, don't drink alcohol before driving, don't use your phone, and don't drive drowsy
The new report estimated that 104 of the 439 traffic fatalities could be avoided if everyone wore their seat belt.