Thanksgiving eclipses other holidays in Oklahoma for fatal crashes, data show

Sleepy shoppers rushing to “Black Friday” sales may be at growing risk, as more stores are opening on Thanksgiving evening and some are staying open through the next day.

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Officials investigate the scene of a fatal accident that killed three people in Sand Springs on Christmas Eve 2009.  Photo courtesy of KOTV
Officials investigate the scene of a fatal accident that killed three people in Sand Springs on Christmas Eve 2009.
Photo courtesy of KOTV

Thanksgiving is the deadliest holiday period for drivers on Oklahoma roads, with 132 people killed in fatal crashes during the holiday since 2002, an analysis by The Frontier shows.

Crashes were more likely on Thanksgiving day rather than the day before or after and slightly more likely between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Though there’s not enough data to show a strong trend, shoppers rushing to “Black Friday” sales could be at growing risk. More stores are opening on Thanksgiving evening and some are staying open all night, meaning more drivers on the roads who may be tired, in a hurry or drinking.

Since 2009, records show six people have been killed in fatal accidents on Oklahoma roads that occurred between 11 p.m. Thanksgiving day and 8 a.m. on Black Friday. There were no fatal accidents during that time period before 2009, according to federal crash data reviewed by The Frontier.

State and federal agencies that track fatal crashes during holidays use differing time periods but all include days before and after major holidays in their statistics. The Frontier analyzed fatal accident data spanning 2003-2014 from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and data from 2002-2014 gathered by the Oklahoma Highway Safety Office.

The data show that since 2002, Memorial Day and Labor Day follow Thanksgiving with the second- and third-highest number of traffic fatalities during a holiday period in Oklahoma: 126 and 108 respectively.

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More Oklahomans are expected to travel over Thanksgiving this year, with an estimated 548,500 people forecast to hit the road during the holiday, according to AAA Oklahoma. That estimate represents a slight increase, 1.2 percent, over last year.

“There’s no doubt a lot of us are guarding our dollars very closely these days,” said Chuck Mai, spokesman for AAA Oklahoma, in a press release. “But the lowest Thanksgiving gasoline prices since 2008 are prying some of those dollars loose and driving what AAA expects will be near record numbers to hit the highways.”

AAA Travel forecasts 46.9 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home during the Thanksgiving holiday, the most since 2007. This year would mark the seventh consecutive year of growth for Thanksgiving travel.

Oklahoma Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. John Vincent said the spike in fatalities on Thanksgiving is due to the concentrated nature of travel before and after the holiday.

“You’ve got to look at how many people across the state are driving from one place or another for the Thanksgiving holiday. There’s going to be a lot more volume of trafffic on the roadways. Also, people aren’t really thinking about driving. They are thinking about getting the turkey to grandma’s.”

He said he is hopeful that a new law banning texting while driving in Oklahoma will have an impact on holiday accidents.

“I would hope that people actually abide by that law and make it to their destination safety without having to pick up a cell phone,” he said.

The OHP will take part in the Interstate 40 Challenge, a traffic enforcement program targeting the busiest travel days surrounding Thanksgiving: Wednesday and Sunday. I-40 runs 2,555 miles through eight states, including 331 miles in Oklahoma.

Troopers will be assigned every 20 miles of I-40 from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesday and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, with an “increased presence” on other highways throughout the state, an OHP release states.

The state’s focus on I-40 is suppported by data showing the highest number of Thanksgiving period fatalities in Oklahoma occurred on U.S. highways as opposed to state highways, county roads and city streets. Not surprisingly, the state’s two largest counties — Oklahoma and Tulsa counties — reported the highest number of fatal crashes. A per capita rate for counties was not available.

About half of those who died in a fatal accident during any holiday period were not wearing seatbelts. Weather appeared to be a factor in just 5 percent of holiday fatalities.

In a majority of all holiday fatal crashes, officers suspected alcohol was involved, though the data doesn’t show how many people were actually charged with a related offense. Alcohol was suspected in about 35 percent of the state’s Thanksgiving period fatalities.

When considering the number of hours in each holiday period, the accident rate per hour during Thanksgiving ranked above all holidays except Labor Day in 2013 and above the Christmas and New Year’s holidays last year.

However the trend at least during the Thanksgiving holiday has been positive during the last few years, dropping from a high of 15 people killed in 2008 to eight last year. Records show 266 people were injured in crashes during the same holiday period last year.

Overall, Oklahoma’s fatal traffic accident rate — calculated as the number of fatal accidents per 100 million vehicle miles driven — is above the national average and above the averages of all surrounding states.

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Ziva Branstetter

Editor in Chief / Staff Writer

Ziva maintains she was always too nosy to be anything other than a reporter. Though she's on a new adventure with The Frontier, she spent more than 25 years in the newspaper business, making politicians nervous and making sure readers got the truth. Contact: ziva@readfrontier.com or 918-520-0406.
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