With champagne toasts and partying until midnight, New Year’s Eve has a reputation for the being the most dangerous night on the road.
As it turns out, Independence Day with its fireworks, parades and picnics has been the holiday with the most highway traffic deaths in Iowa, followed closely by Thanksgiving and Labor Day, data from the Iowa Department of Transportation show.
“The old adage of more people out drinking on New Year’s, that used to be the case,” said Iowa State Patrol Trooper Bob Conrad. “Not as many people are doing that (now), or they are being more responsible. They either take the Uber or they take a taxi or make other arrangements.”
New Year’s Day — which in Iowa DOT data tracking includes New Year’s Eve — had an average 3.87 fatalities per day from 1981 through 2018. This compares with 5.97 fatalities per day for Independence Day, 5.84 for Thanksgiving and 5.76 for Labor Day.
If you’re confused by the “per day,” let us explain.
For each holiday, the Iowa DOT includes fatalities that occur from 6 p.m. the day before the holiday through 5:59 a.m. of the day after.
If a holiday falls on a Wednesday — like Christmas this year — the Iowa DOT includes just one day. If it falls on a Tuesday or Thursday, four days are included. If the holiday is on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday, three days are included.
The Iowa data are bolstered by a report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Highway Loss Data Institute, which used federal traffic death data from 2010 to 2014 to show the Fourth of July was the most deadly day, with motorcycle crashes and alcohol contributing to traffic deaths.
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“The deadliest weekends are typically travel weekends,” Conrad said. “The more miles you drive, the more susceptible to being in those crashes.”
The common concern about New Year’s Eve is an increase in drunken drivers. Indeed, alcohol contributed to half the fatal crashes on New Year’s Eve/Day, compared with 45 percent on Independence Day and 32 percent on Thanksgiving, Iowa DOT data show.
The number of traffic fatalities on New Year’s has been trending downward since the early 1980s, data show.
A high of 17 people died on Iowa roads over New Year’s Eve/Day weekend in 1983, with alcohol contributing to 11 of those deaths, the Iowa DOT reported. New Year’s traffic deaths on Iowa highways have been in single digits since 1992.
Overall in 2018, 319 traffic fatalities were recorded on Iowa’s roads, with 73, or 21 percent, of those involving a driver with a blood-alcohol concentration of at least 0.08 — the legal threshold for being impaired in Iowa.
This is down slightly from 330 traffic deaths in 2017, with 79, or 23 percent, involving alcohol impairment, the Iowa DOT reported.
Law enforcement agencies often boost patrols around the holidays. The state patrol had more troopers working over Thanksgiving weekend this year to make traffic stops and serve as a visual reminder for drivers to obey traffic laws.
“When you see a cop, what do you do? Slow down. Put your phone down. For the next 5 miles, you become an excellent driver,” Conrad said.
Conrad advises holiday drivers to eliminate distractions, such as using phones or trying to mediate fights between children in the back seat.
“People think they can do both and get away with it,” he said. “The safe attitude is to say, ‘I’m driving.’ ”