It's going to take a little longer to make it to Grandma's this Thanksgiving, but it won't cost as much as it did last year.
Thanks largely to lower gas prices, traffic on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving - getaway day - will be up about 3% higher than a year ago, according to a new analysis by INRIX, a traffic-congestion tracking firm in Kirkland, Wash.
"What we've been seeing this spring and summer is congestion levels up about 6% on average, month over month," says Jim Bak, INRIX's director of community relations. "Over the last couple of months, we saw things tail off a little bit. So we expect holiday congestion to be up about 3% over last year. If gas prices weren't as low as they are, things probably would have been flat compared to last year. With the low gas prices, people have more incentive to travel."
The national average price for a gallon of regular gasoline was $3.20 on Monday, about 21 cents a gallon less than a year ago, according to AAA.
"Certainly prices of fuel are not going to be an inhibition to travel," says Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at GasBuddy.com. "I think you are going to see the cheapest Thanksgiving-week prices since 2010."
As usual, the Wednesday-afternoon rush hour will occur about two hours earlier than usual - at 3 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. Travelers in most cities can expect traffic to start building around 2 p.m. and begin easing about 6 p.m., with virtually no delays after 7 p.m.
Along the East Coast and in the Midwest, INRIX expects steady traffic on roads throughout the day with the heaviest between 3-6 p.m. On the West Coast, the company anticipates a light morning commute with few delays.
This year, because of an extremely rare calendar phenomenon, Thanksgiving falls during Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights - an occurrence that last happened in 1888 and isn't projected to happen again for 79,043 years.
"I think that will factor into the mix, but to what degree, I couldn't tell you," Bak says.
The airline industry trade group Airlines for Americaexpects the number of people flying Nov. 22 through Dec. 3 to increase by 1.5% over last year, to 25 million passengers. That'll mean more people on main routes to airports on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving; INRIX says air travelers should plan an additional 20 minutes for the trip to the airport.
INRIX's Thanksgiving travel projection is based on its analysis of real-time information from nearly 100 million vehicles on the roads daily, data from the Thanksgiving holiday periods in 2011-12 and traffic trends from major national holidays this year.
The National Safety Council is projecting that 436 people will die in traffic crashes between 6 p.m. on getaway day and 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 1. The NSC estimates that 158 lives may be saved by people buckling up.
Holiday drivers should not only buckle up but also keep an eye on the speedometer: All 50 states will be stepping up enforcement during the Thanksgiving travel season, says Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association. "With the improving economy, we suspect more families will be hitting the road to see Grandma or take a few days of vacation," he says. "It's critical that drivers buckle up, turn their cellphones off and not excessively speed. These three actions greatly increase the chances of a safe trip."
Many states will be participating in the annual Thanksgiving Click It or Ticket seat belt enforcement campaign. In addition, police from Wilmington, N.C., to Barstow, Calif., are taking part in a new "I-40 Challenge." This multi-state, multi-agency initiative of the International Association of Chiefs of Police will assign a state trooper every 20 miles along the entire 2,555 miles of Interstate 40.