Thanksgiving holds a more dubious honor than being the best day to gather ’round for a turkey dinner.
As people rush across the state to family feasts, careless drivers, slippery roads and speeding cars make Thanksgiving weekend the most likely holiday period to have a wreck on Minnesota’s roads.
Distracted driving was the most common factor in 564 crashes involving 1,436 cars between Nov. 27 and Dec. 1 last year, state records show — ahead of failure to yield to other motorists, speeding, and driving while on drugs or alcohol.
And authorities say they’re on guard for drunk motorists following “Blackout Wednesday,” a Thanksgiving Eve binge-drinking tradition among many young people that even has its own Twitter hashtag.
“While we want people to enjoy that time with their friends and loved ones, we want them to make smart decisions for a safe and sober ride home,” said Minnesota State Patrol Lt. Erik Roeske.
Fatal injuries are more prevalent on warmer holidays, such as Memorial Day and July 4th. But Thanksgiving is rife with opportunity for car damage, and rates only behind Independence Day weekend for injured people (297 vs. 332).
A state spokesman cautioned that winter holiday weekends still see fewer deaths on the road than over the summer.
“There may be more ‘fender benders’ in colder, winter weather, but there are also less traffic fatalities,” said David Boxum, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety.
Still, the state plans to put out extra patrols this week, in keeping with authorities’ greater focus on road safety education and enforcement.
The state is ramping up drunken-driving enforcement beginning Wednesday, and that will continue on select dates in November and December.
Records show that impairment from drugs and alcohol played a part in 32 crashes last Thanksgiving weekend. During Thanksgiving weekends over the past three years, 1,624 drivers were charged with drunken driving, state officials said, and 17 people suffered life-changing injuries in crashes involving an impaired motorist during that period.
Many aren’t caught: Two days after Thanksgiving last year, a man reported seeing a driver who appeared to have been drinking hit a parked car in Minneapolis, briefly get out, and then drive off.
Accidents over Thanksgiving weekend of 2013 ran the gamut: An inattentive teenager driving a car with defective brakes led to a crash that injured a senior in St. Cloud. Skidding cars in wintry weather led to an accident involving seven people in Duluth. A 57-year-old woman who was “chemically impaired” caused a wreck when she disregarded a traffic signal. In downtown Minneapolis, an elderly woman disobeyed a traffic light and plowed into a car with four people, injuring three.
Duluth saw 24 crashes last Thanksgiving weekend, when police spokesman Ron Tinsley said people were struggling with driving in wintry weather.
“We’re sitting on a hill. … A lot of [motorists] are just not prepared for the slippery road conditions, so they drive down the hill and don’t apply the brakes quickly enough,” said Tinsley.
Tinsley said that with the first snowfall in 2014, the city saw well over 100 vehicles involved in crashes. A driver hit his squad car last week after a light snowfall.
And more snow is forecast this Thanksgiving weekend.
Ahead of New Year’s
In 2012, Thanksgiving weekend surpassed New Year’s for most crashes. That came as crashes for all holidays have fallen in the state. Thanksgiving weekend in 2008, for instance, saw 958 crashes. Over New Year’s that year, there were 1,297 accidents. Last year, there were just 240.
Some motorists saw serious accidents last year, although it was not the deadliest. Last Thanksgiving, 80-year-old David Jones was driving home from a holiday dinner when his Jeep swerved off Hwy. 110 and rolled over in Mendota Heights. The crash ejected Jones, not wearing a seat belt, and he died of his injuries that night. No alcohol was involved.
His daughter, Teresa Jones, said they’ll make his chili recipe at a family get-together this weekend and play a recording of his violin music during Thanksgiving dinner.
Her father had always warned her to be careful on the curving roads where she lived in Isanti. Now, she said, “I think about it every day when I drive to work — ‘Be careful on those curvy roads.’
“So many people get angry at me when I’m going 40 miles an hour on the icy roads up here, and they go around you, but I just let them go around,” Jones said. “Every time I do see a car accident, I get a flash of my own father’s accident. I suppose it’ll be awhile before I stop.”