Road fatalities rise on long weekends, but not for the usual reasons

As Labour Day weekend approaches, police campaigns are in full gear, warning drivers about the perils of long weekend road travel. But a recent study on fatal crashes during holidays suggests the causes may not be what you expect.

Study suggests seatbelts, not alcohol, a bigger problem on holidays

Commuters face snarled traffic as they head out for long weekend vacations. (J.P. Moczulski/Canadian Press)

In the days before long weekends come the inevitable police campaigns with their dire warnings of deadly crashes. Don't be one of the many fatalities, they warn.

A recent Canadian study found that there's truth to the oft-repeated refrain that long-weekend travel can be more deadly, but some of the behaviours targeted in holiday campaigns might miss the mark.

Using five years' worth of Alberta provincial crash data, the study determined that holiday weekends see on average an 18 per cent higher rate of fatal collisions than non-holiday weekends.

What caused these deaths, however, didn't always match up with conventional wisdom.

In fact, regular weekends saw more crashes involving drunk driving and speeding than holiday weekends, the study published in the Accident Analysis and Prevention journal said.

While the study itself didn't delve into possible reasons for this, co-author Sabreena Anowar theorized it may be because, on regular weekends, people often drive solo while holiday travel tends to be with family.

"It has been shown in literature when people drive with family members they tend to be more conservative," suggested Anowar, who is now working on a PhD at McGill University in transportation engineering.

Less buckling up

Ontario Provincial Police Sgt. Dave Woodford — whose force oversees some of the busiest highways in the country, which are also some of the safest — suggests the reason for fewer aggression-linked crashes might be simpler.

"There's a lot more vehicles on the road," he says. "Traffic's not moving as fast so those aggressive drivers, you may not see as many of them because of the heavier traffic."

What the study did find on holiday weekends was more passengers and drivers failing to buckle-up — a problem Alberta's traffic sheriffs have been targeting with success in recent years.

The three co-authors of the study recommend that policy-makers focus their seatbelt blitzes during these long weekends, when buckling up is lower, and then target other dangerous actions such as speeding on regular weekends.

In Alberta, at least, while more officers flood the roads on holiday weekends to encourage adherence to the rules, Traffic Sheriffs Supt. James Stiles says the aim is to target all bad behaviours.

"What we want to do is combat some of those poor driving behaviours that lead to the crashes. That's why we put a lot of emphasis on long weekends. Always have," said Stiles.

Fatality-free weekend

Road safety campaigns in Alberta, like many provinces, take aim at different driving behaviours each month. August's focus is impaired driving, says Stiles, because the summer months see more drinking-related collisions.

"It's inevitable when you have so many people on our roads that you'll have fatalities," he notes about the upcoming Labour Day weekend.

However, last month, during Canada's civic holiday, Alberta marked an unusual event: a fatality-free long weekend.

"Of course, that is very gratifying to our people working on the roads here," said Stiles.

Ontario also experienced one of the lowest death tolls on a civic holiday weekend in two decades this year, with just one road-related fatality, but that's a rare event.

Overall, collisions have been steadily falling across the country for the past two decades, but car crashes on holiday weekends — or the surprising lack thereof — inevitably garner much media attention.

Few studies, though, examine how long weekends differ from the majority of weekends.

One U.S. study found that six of the 10 deadliest road days occurred on major American holidays. On the other side of the world, though, two Australian studies found that differences between fatality rates between holiday and non-holiday weekends were too small to be statistically significant.

Authors of the Canadian study, which examined data from 2004 until 2008, decided to take a look at how the risks differed between public holidays compared to other weekends because so little was known on the topic.

Among the other findings in the study is that holiday crashes happened more frequently in rural areas and involved more out-of-province drivers than during other weekends, suggesting part of the cause is unfamiliarity with the roads.

Lessons to learn?

Rear-end and angular crashes — often indicative of driver distraction — were also more common during the holidays.

"People are using more gadgetry in vehicles nowadays: cellphones, Bluetooth," said study co-author Shamsunnahar Yasmin. "These kinds of things are really very important with respect to road safety."

If drivers take one lesson from the study, however, Anowar hopes they take it upon themselves to improve their own behaviour.

"Even though the campaigns are enough, I think we still need to improve our behaviour as drivers," said Anowar.

Supt. Stiles agrees that "we see too much bad driving behaviour" in general and issues a reminder to all those heading out on the long weekend.

"The nature of long weekends is people are out visiting family, they might be camping or out doing things," he said, "and our message has to be very strong: Our  folks are going to be out there en masse and we'll try and catch anybody who's breaking the law."