Metro-East News

For drivers, it’s the most dangerous time of the year. Here’s why.


The holidays are a busy time of year — picking up last minute gifts, traveling across the country to see family, running late, and maybe sending texts and talking along the way. But officials are reminding drivers this holiday season to set the cell phone aside and focus on the road.

As of Dec. 14, there have been 1,021 fatalities on Illinois roads, an increase of 78 from this time last year, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. Those numbers include drivers, passengers and pedestrians. The statewide increase is reflective of a nationwide trend of increasing traffic fatalities since 2014, the National Safety Council reports. Those increases can be partially chalked up to a stronger economy where more people are on the roads going to work and traveling. Auto insurers believe distracted driving is an increasingly serious concern, the Washington Post reports.

Kevin Martin, executive director of the Illinois Insurance Association, says the insurance industry “records the highest number of car accidents throughout the year” during the holiday season. He says nearly 2 million drivers will travel across the state in December.

During the holiday season, distracted driving poses an even greater threat because of “increased traffic and busy schedules,” says the Shepherd Center, a medical facility in Atlanta. Stress, lack of sleep, impaired driving after holiday parties also contribute to the heightened danger of driving during the season. The center maintains a list of suggestions for staying safe during the holiday travel season.

To ensure a safe trip, never use a cell phone while driving. Also be sure to follow these tips from the Illinois Insurance Agency:

▪  Prior to your scheduled trip, make sure your vehicle has had all necessary service and maintenance inspections. If your vehicle is not reliable for a long trip, consider renting one to help prevent further wear and tear or a potential break-down or accident.

▪  Check to ensure your auto insurance is up to date and that you have a valid insurance card in your vehicle prior to leaving. You might also consider adding roadside assistance if you do not currently have it.

▪  Plan your travel schedule and route a few days prior to departure. Consider leaving earlier or later than the popular times to avoid busy roads and heavy traffic. Additionally, share your route with someone back home in case of emergency.

▪  Pack all necessary tools and gadgets for a safe and comfortable trip such as a reliable navigation system, cellphone and charger, snow scraper, first-aid kit, jumper cables, spare tire, extra blankets, snacks and water.

▪  Properly restrain yourself and passengers in seat belts or car seats prior to departure. Remember the safest place for children to sit is in the rear seat of your vehicle.

▪  Stay alert when driving long distances. Make sure to schedule rest stops in your travel plan to avoid tiredness and a potential accident.

▪  Respect the rules of the road, which includes following the speed limit, stopping completely at stop signs and lights, and not using your cell phone while driving. Distracted driving is the number one cause of accidents across the country.

▪  Keep valuables and gifts locked in your trunk and covered to avoid a break-in at stops along your trip.

▪  Make sure to designate a sober driver if there will be drinking at a holiday function.

The Insurance Information Institute, a consumer research organization, says increased travel over the holidays leads to higher numbers of traffic fatalities. In 2014, Thanksgiving was the deadliest travel day with 403 deaths, followed by Labor Day with 362 deaths and Christmas Day with 255 deaths, according to the institute. Talking on a cell phone or looking at a handheld device drastically increases the likelihood of an accident.

Teenagers in particular are at risk of distracted driving, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. In 2013, drivers ages 15 to 19 involved in fatal crashes were distracted at the time of the wreck, the National Traffic and Highway Safety Administration says. Teens aren’t the only age group tempted by their cell phones while driving. The largest increase of drivers with a smartphone between 2011 and 2014 was among adults 40 years old and up, according to State Farm. In that same time period, the percentage of drivers owning smartphones increased from 52 percent to 80 percent.

The percentage of drivers using those handheld devices increased from 1.7 percent in 2013 to 2.2 percent in 2014, the administration reports.

Kelsey Landis: 618-239-2110, @kelseylandis