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New Year's Danger


Claim:   New Year's is the day of the year on which the greatest number of people are killed in automobile accidents.

FALSE

Origins:   Many a motorist who has set out to drive somewhere on New Year's Day has departed to an emphatic chorus of "Be careful!" admonitions from relatives, friends, and acquaintances, the presumption being that New Year's is a particularly
dangerous day to be out on public roads. The combination of a holiday noted for alcoholic consumption among its revelers falling at a time of year when daylight hours are short and winter weather makes for less than ideal driving conditions is presumed to pose an especially high risk for motorists.

But is New Year's Day actually the most dangerous day for driving? While the general concept of "danger" is difficult to quantify, if we define it to mean "the day of the year that typically sees the greatest number of automobile accident-related deaths," New Year's Day is not the most dangerous day of the year.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) analyzed data from the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) for the seventeen-year span from 1986 to 2002 and calculated the average number of people who died in automobile crashes for every date of the year. The results showed that in number of fatalities, January 1 ranked lower than the days immediately preceding the Christmas and Fourth of July holidays, and not significantly higher than several days in early to mid-August:

DAYS WITH THE MOST CRASH DEATHS, 1986-2002
Total deaths Avg. per day
July 4 2,743 161
July 3 2,534 149
December 23 2,470 145
August 3 2,413 142
January 1 2,411 142
August 6 2,387 140
August 4 2,365 139
August 12 2,359 139
July 2 2,340 138
September 2 2,336 137

When we ran the same stats ourselves for the year 2012, we found a similar pattern: The days with the highest numbers of traffic fatalities typically fell between the beginning and end of the summer driving season (mid-June to late August) and often coincided with mid-year holidays and celebrations (Cinco de Mayo, Memorial Day, 4th of July), but New Year's Day itself ranked well down the list, tied with two other days (September 15 and October 20) for 18th place. The overwhelming preponderance of high-fatality traffic days on this list also fell on Sundays:

DAYS WITH THE MOST CRASH DEATHS, 2012
Total deaths
June 16 142
June 9 140
June 23 136
May 19 136
July 28 135
June 30 130
July 7 130
August 25 128
August 4 123
July 1 122
November 10 122
June 10 121
July 14 120
May 5 119
May 26 118
September 14 118
November 3 118
January 1 117

We note for the sake of thoroughness that this chart is based on absolute figures, not relative ones. A significant factor behind why summer months correspond to higher numbers of traffic fatalities is because those are the months in which the total number of miles driven by motorists reaches its peak for the year (while January and February represent the opposite extreme), so the fatal accident rate (i.e., fatalities per mile driven) may be higher at other times of the year.

Not surprisingly, as the IIHS observed, alcohol plays a large part in the reason why holidays such as New Year's and the Fourth of July experience more automobile-related deaths:
Forty-one percent of the deaths on the 4th [of July] and 51 percent on January 1 involved high blood alcohol concentrations. These proportions compare with 33 percent on December 25 and January 8 (days in close proximity that aren't associated with New Year's) and 31 percent on June 27 and July 11.
The fatality numbers cited above include drivers, passengers, and pedestrians. If we exclude the occupants of vehicles and consider the statistics from a pedestrian standpoint alone, New Year's Day is the most dangerous day of the year to be afoot on or around public roadways, followed closely by Halloween:

DAYS WITH THE MOST PEDESTRIAN DEATHS, 1986-2002
Total deaths Avg. per day
January 1 410 24
October 31 401 24
December 23 373 22
December 20 357 21
November 2 351 21
October 26 350 21
November 3 348 20
November 10 344 20
November 1 340 20
December 18 339 20

It should be noted that although traffic-related deaths may increase around certain holidays, the number of fatalities across the entire 17-year period covered by the study still averaged 117 per day. As Allan Williams of the IIHS cautioned, "While more deaths do occur on some of the holidays, the toll of fatalities is relentless every day, all year long."

Last updated:   31 December 2013

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Sources:

    Rabin, Roni Caryn.   "Beware the Walk Home on New Year's Eve."
    The New York Times.   28 December 2009.

    Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.   "More Crash Deaths Occur on 4th of July."
    1 July 2004.