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How Scared Should I Be?

How Scared Should I Be of Drunk Drivers During the Holidays?

Government data says fatalities from crashes increase during the holidays. Is that because of drunk drivers? And should you stay off the roads?

Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Diliff

In the column "How Scared Should I Be?" VICE staff writer and generalized anxiety disorder sufferer Mike Pearl seeks to quantify the scariness of the world he lives in. We hope it helps you to more wisely allocate that most precious of natural resources: your fear.

I'm not going to sit here and tell you anything is scary about Christmas itself. The occasional bizarre crime aside, Christmas is usually eight hours of food and arguing with your family, interspersed with the occasional disappointing gift exchange. For most people—myself included—it's much more pleasant than that. But for me, there's a big downside to Christmas, and it's all the time spent on the road.


I was born and raised in the suburbs outside Los Angeles, and now I live in Los Angeles proper. The advantage is obvious: I don't have to use my vacation time to see my family during the holidays because they're 40 miles away. The disadvantage: Those are 40 of the world's shittiest miles. Driving them during Christmas means being on the road during a time that is, according to data from the federal Department of Transportation, the second deadliest time of year.

While there seems to be a heightened danger of road deaths around this time, is it more important than usual to watch out for drunks? There are inevitably some high-profile holiday accidents, like a devastating road disaster last Christmas Eve in Las Vegas in which alcohol was allegedly a factor—but do the statistics back up the notion that the most wonderful time of the year is also the most hazardous?

"People need to remember that motor vehicle crashes do occur, and so do serious injuries and deaths from them," Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told me.

Back in 2005, the IIHS released "Temporal factors in motor vehicle crash deaths," its most comprehensive—and most recent—analysis of which days of the year see the most accidents, and whether the drivers responsible are sloshed. According to the report, which compiled data from 1986 to 2002, one of the deadliest days was yesterday, December 23.


As you may have heard, the fourth of July and the day before are the biggies for DUI deaths, with an average of 161 and 149 deaths respectively, according to the report. But they're followed by December 23 at 145 deaths. When you fiddle with the data to exclude the deaths of pedestrians, December 23 is the second deadliest day of the year, and Christmas Eve rises to spot number five. When only pedestrian deaths are considered, Christmas Eve vanishes from the list, but New Year's Day becomes the deadliest day of the year.

However, it's not entirely clear that drunkenness is the problem around Christmas. According to Lund, "On the holidays, two things happen: One is you get more partiers, so you see an increase in alcohol-impaired driving, but you especially get an increase in travel."

What that means is that though alcohol is a factor in crashes on New Year's Day, the spike in deaths around Christmas is likely at least partly due to a spike in the number of cars on the road.

The paper does point out that as a pedestrian walking around in the days surrounding Christmas, I have heightened odds of running into trouble, especially if I'm the one who's drunk.

"The fact is that one of the reasons pedestrians get hit on holidays is because they're impaired themselves, and they're not really keeping a good lookout, or they're busy talking to friends and celebrating, and they step off the curb at the wrong time," Lund told me.


One thing Lund stressed is that the data was collected over a decade ago, and things have changed for the better.

"Over the recent decades, we've greatly reduced that problem," he said. "I think when we wrote this paper, the average number of deaths per day was over 100 on average for the year. Now we're down to around 90 or so, so we've made great progress in making the roads safer."

So thinking selfishly—yes, it does seem like I'm at a slightly higher risk than usual for an encounter with a drunk driver during the holidays. It also sounds like I should think twice about getting shitfaced after work tonight and taking a walk downtown. And if there are more drunk drivers than usual out there, there are some things you can do to stay safe: Stay away, don't bother them, and when it's safe, let someone know they're there. (Think of them like bears.)

Really, the risk comes from drunk drivers that surprise you. That's exactly why, whenever possible, any sane person already knows to keep away from places like bars at times like closing time on New Years Day.

Or as Lund put it: "The issue here is that around holidays one needs to be extra careful, and there is extra exposure, because there is some partying going on. But you really need to be careful every day."

Final Verdict: How Scared Should I Be of Drunk Drivers During the Holidays?

2/5: Taking Normal Precautions