As the holidays quickly approach, more drivers are expected to fill the roadways of Richmond County and throughout the state and beyond.
That’s because gas prices have dipped while the cost of air travel has risen.
North Carolina’s gasoline prices have dropped 64 cents a gallon since peaking May 6, providing a Christmas present for the 2.4 million North Carolina motorists expected to drive more than 50 miles from home this holiday season, according to AAA Carolinas.
With more people on the roads this holiday, and the chance for a bit of inclement weather, area law enforcement are advising drivers to plan ahead, pay attention and drive with extra caution.
“We will step up road patrol during the holidays,” said Richmond County Sheriff James Clemmons Jr. “There will be a high visibility of us, not only in the community, but on the highways too. We’re asking folks to buckle up, slow your speed down, and drive defensively.”
North Carolina Highway Patrol will also be in full force for the holidays.
“We will have extra patrols out,” said State Highway Patrol Spokesman, Trooper Mark Helms. “Especially trying to keep people from driving recklessly and following too closely. It’s our goal to make sure you see more troopers during the holidays.”
Helms said that Highway Patrol is expecting a significant increase of cars on the road in the next couple of weeks.
“Any time there’s a holiday, we have what’s called the Combined Accident Reduction Effort, or C.A.R.E.,” Helms said. “And this is nationwide, where our troopers will be out on the road and focused on heavily traveled roads. Especially now that it’s getting cold at night, we’ll check the cars for people that are broken down or may have car trouble.”
Although we have enjoyed unseasonably warm temperatures within the past month, next week’s forecast predicts the possibility of low temperatures and potentially icy roads.
By the numbers
This is the longest holiday travel season, extending from December 23rd through January 2nd.
The 11-day year-end holiday will see 2,592,000 North Carolinians traveling with 92 percent driving (2.38 million), 6 percent flying (155,600) and 2 percent traveling by other means (51,800) — a 3.6 percent increase over last year’s travel totals, reports AAA Carolinas.
“The drop in gasoline prices, higher air fares and fewer available flights on smaller planes, and the slowly improving economy mean more people will travel to visit family, friends and holiday destinations,” said David E. Parsons, president and CEO of AAA Carolinas.
The average price in North Carolina is the cheapest since early February this year when gasoline was $3.14 a gallon and the lowest since peaking at $3.877 on May 6.
Motorists can expect to find the cheapest gasoline in North Carolina in High Point at $3.148 a gallon and the most expensive gas in Boone at $3.314. For those traveling through South Carolina, the average price per gallon is 20 cents lower than North Carolina’s.
Gas prices in North Carolina are averaging 13 cents less than pre-Thanksgiving holiday prices. Prices are expected to remain stable or slightly decrease over the holidays, according to AAA Carolinas, due to a nationwide decline in demand and Congressional budget wrangling.
The increase of traffic will also cause delays in certain areas. Two continuing bridge construction projects will affect traffic flow:
• U.S. 17 Business in Jacksonville (Onslow County) is reduced to two-lane, one lane in each direction, traffic on the Buddy Phillips Bridge over the New River.
• U.S. 17 in Windsor (Bertie County) is reduced to one lane on the Cashie River Bridge due to construction. Traffic is controlled by signals; however, commercial trucks are restricted from this route.
Air travel is expected to be down slightly, with airfares up 21 percent over last year, triggered by higher jet fuel costs and reduced capacity as airlines try to increase profits. The lowest round-trip airfare average for 40 city-to-city trips is $210 this year, compared to $174 last year, according to HIS Global Insight, which does holiday travel forecasting research for AAA.
Many flights have been sold out since mid-December, according to AAA travel agents. However, those who do fly will find car rental rates lower by 21 percent this year, dropping to an average $40 for a daily rate.
Carolina travelers are expected to log an average trip of 726 miles from home, a dramatic drop from an average 1,050 miles round trip last year, reflecting shorter airline flights and shorter drives.
Holiday spending is expected to increase slightly from $694 to $718 for fuel, accommodations, shopping, entertainment and other travel related costs.
Hotel rates are expected to be flat for AAA Three Diamond (mid-range) properties, the most popular, at $126 a night.
Caution behind the wheel
North Carolina highways were the scene of more than 65 fatalities during the 2008-2010 winter holiday seasons. An average of almost 300 traffic injuries a day are typically reported during the holidays. AAA Carolinas reminds everyone to drive carefully this year.
Drunk driving is always a major problem during this travel period with holiday parties often held between Christmas and New Year’s. Remember to secure a designated driver or call a cab if you are going to consume alcohol.
In addition to increased patrolling, Trooper Helms says to expect D.W.I. checkpoints at several locations, particularly on New Year’s Eve.
Unexpected weather or vehicle problems may leave motorists stranded this holiday season and inclement weather is probable. And lawmen advise, with cooler temperatures, folks should be prepared to face more severe driving conditions, such as snow or ice.
“If it rains and you’re driving overnight, because of the temperature drops, be mindful of black ice,” Clemmons said. “If you are losing control of your vehicle, turn the vehicle in the way that you’re skidding and pump the brakes. And if you’re running off the road, keep the vehicle going that way — don’t overcompensate. “
Trooper Helms suggested the importance of being prepared for these conditions.
“Being prepared almost means you’ll have success,” Helms said about traveling during the winter holidays. “First, check all the fluids in your car. Do not leave unless you have a full tank of gas and at least 50 dollars in your wallet. Leave early. You’re going to find yourself in heavy traffic.” While driving, Helms said to use extra precautions as well. “The norm would be following another vehicle 3 seconds behind, but if it starts snowing or icing, add a second for every adverse condition.”
For those planning on traveling long distances in their vehicles next week, AAA Carolinas recommends keeping an emergency kit in your car that includes:
• Mobile phone and car charger
• Blankets and flashlight with extra batteries
• A first aid kit
• Drinking water and non-perishable snacks
• Small shovel and sack of sand or cat litter for traction
• Windshield scraper
• Battery booster cables
• Plastic emergency triangle reflectors
Weather conditions are just one of many cautions drivers must take while traveling on the roads in the following weeks.
“The issue has been driver error,” Clemmons said of the most common problem the Sheriff’s Office experienced during the last holiday season. “Whether (drivers) are talking on phones or being out too late and then driving. Sleep deprivation is still driving while impaired. Finally, don’t assume that since you’re on the highway you have the right of way — always be cautious.”