It's late at night on a holiday, and local emergency workers are on high alert. In upstate New York, a speeding car splits into three pieces after slamming into a utility pole. In Longview, Texas, a drunk driver hits a Mitsubishi Montero, killing a college student. In Western Michigan, a driver loses control of her car and crashes into a parked ambulance.
Just another New Year's Eve, right? Wrong. These things all happened on Thanksgiving, the most dangerous holiday of the year for drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Thanksgiving is the day when heavy traffic, drinking and long-distance car trips combine to create fatal travel conditions.
"Now that airline ticket prices have increased, you have people trying to cram in as many activities as they can before they take that four- or five-hour trip home," says David Kelly, acting administrator for the NHTSA. That means more travelers making a mad dash from a wine- or beer-soaked family gathering to the car to make it home in time for work the next day.
Behind the numbers
To develop our list of the most dangerous holidays for travelers, we used data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's report on motor vehicle deaths over three- or four-day holiday periods from 2001 to 2006, the most recent data available. We then used an average to determine the most fatal holidays.
Because drunk driving and road congestion contribute significantly to car accidents during times of celebration, we also included the percentage of fatal crashes caused by intoxication and the AAA-estimated number of cars on the road for each holiday period in our analysis.
It's not just the eating and drinking that make Thanksgiving so dangerous, it turns out. Roads are packed with traffic, and after a long day with the family, drivers are often extremely sleepy. According to the National Sleep Foundation's Report on Drowsy Driving, 100,000 reported crashes, 71,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths every year can be attributed to falling asleep at the wheel. Add that to heavy holiday traffic, and you have a recipe for disaster.
"Any time you have a long weekend," says Kelly, "you have increased car travel, which increases exposure to traffic accidents."
Curse of the long weekend
Whereas some holidays can escape this prescription by occasionally falling midweek, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day and Labor Day are blighted by design. They always fall on a three- or four-day weekend, which creates unusually packed holiday rushes on the roads.
Dr. David Wiesenthal, whose research at York University in Toronto focuses on driving stress, vengeance and aggression, says the confinement can lead to aggressive driving. "When people are in very slow-moving traffic, they get stressed, and that leads to general nastiness, like horn honking, shouting and cutting people off."
All-day drinking and the already high number of travelers in vacation-heavy midsummer make Independence Day the second most perilous holiday, with almost 41 million people on the roads and more than half of all accidents caused by drunk driving. Memorial Day and Labor Day come in at Nos. 3 and 4, respectively.
Obviously, the best way to stay safe on dangerous driving days is to stay home — or to fly, but many have no option but to drive. For these travelers, Kelly recommends the usual: wear a seatbelt, make a plan for getting home if you're going to be drinking and don't speed.
And if you can't steer clear of major thoroughfares on a high-fatality day, maybe it would be a good time to consider the train.
© 2012 Forbes.com