The pandemic is fueling natural Christmas tree sales this year, and that has the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) and the American Automobile Association — better known as AAA — urging buyers to properly secure their farm-grown conifers for the ride home.

Research from AAA found that 44% of Americans who plan to purchase a live Christmas tree this year will transport it using unsafe methods. Of those, 20% will tie the tree to the roof of their vehicle without using a roof rack, and 24% will place the tree in the bed of their pickup truck unsecured, meaning it could flip out and onto the road or a passing vehicle.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety does not keep specific statistics on crashes caused by unsecured Christmas trees, said spokesman Scott Wasserman. But it does happen — last year, AAA found 16% of people who bought real Christmas trees have previously had one fall off or out of their vehicle while driving it home.

"Transporting a Christmas tree can be dangerous if not done properly and cause damage to your vehicle or others on the road," said Jesse Simon, a spokesman for AAA Minneapolis.

Unsecured debris is a problem year-round, not just during the holidays. Over the past three years, there have been 13 crashes and 17 deaths in Minnesota that resulted from jettisoned cargo, the DPS said.

During the same time period, law enforcement issued 459 citations and 1,704 warnings to drivers who improperly secured their loads. Another 41 were ticketed and 23 warned for failing to secure their loads, DPS data show. Motorists are subject to criminal or civil action if their unsecured load causes a crash. It's a misdemeanor, but a second offense could carry a fine of up to $400.

Of course, an improperly secured tree can cause damage, even if it does not fall off a moving vehicle. Trees improperly tied down can cost drivers as much as $1,500 in repairs due to scratched paint, torn door seals and wrecked window frames, according to AAA.

But cutting down and loading up a tree is fun and can add merriment to the Christmas season. So here are a few tips from AAA and the NCTA, which produced a video on how to properly secure a tree:

• Bring strong rope or nylon ratchet straps, an old blanket and gloves, as some farms, garden centers and retail tree lots may not provide them. If offered, have the seller wrap the tree in netting before loading. Loose branches can also be secured with rope or twine to help protect the tree from damage.

• Cover the roof with a blanket to prevent scratches to the paint and protect the car from damage.

• Place the tree on the roof rack or in the bed of the truck with the tree trunk facing the front of the car. If the vehicle does not have a roof rack and is an SUV, van or minivan, place the tree inside. If not, rent or borrow a pickup truck, a vehicle with a roof rack or one that is large enough to accommodate the tree inside.

• Secure the tree at its bottom, center and top using strong rope or nylon ratchet straps. Use fixed vehicle tie-down points and loop the rope or strap around the tree trunk above a branch to prevent any side-to-side or front-to-rear movement. Once tied down, give the tree several strong tugs from various angles to make sure it is secured and will not come loose.

• Drive slowly and take back roads if possible. Higher speeds can create significant airflow that can damage your tree or challenge even the best tie-down methods.

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