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Taking a road trip for Thanksgiving? Here are the worst times to hit the road

  • November 23, 2021
  • Travelers can usually expect an uptick in traffic during Thanksgiving, but there are some factors this year that could add to the congestion.
  • INRIX found that the best time to take off is after 9 p.m. on Wednesday and before 11 a.m. on Thursday.
  • Below are some of the worst congestion times within U.S. traffic corridors the day before Thanksgiving.

AAA projects nearly 4 million more people will hit the roads this Thanksgiving compared with last year, which means travelers should be prepared to face an uptick in traffic. 

Experts say the long holiday weekend, increased vaccination rates and open U.S. borders are all pushing more people to drive this year. A November AAA report predicts automobile travel volumes will fall within 3% of pre-pandemic levels, with 48.3 million people traveling by car for Thanksgiving.

“There are a couple of really big driving holidays. … Thanksgiving is one of them,” said Bob Pishue, an analyst with transportation analytics company INRIX. “(Traffic) won’t be as bad as it was in 2019. But the roads are definitely more congested than they were last year.”

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INRIX’s advice for travelers: leave early

INRIX found traffic delays nationwide are expected to be about 40% higher than normal over Thanksgiving.  

But there are ways to beat the road congestion. Pishue said morning departures tend to be ideal, especially now that there are fewer people commuting to work or school in the pandemic.

INRIX found that the best time to take off is after 9 p.m. on Wednesday, before 11 a.m. on Thursday and Friday and before noon on Saturday and Sunday.

“Leaving in the morning is definitely the best bet,” he said. “Even on a normal day, midday and afternoon traffic is pretty heavy, and in a lot of places is just as bad now as it was pre-COVID.”

Why is traffic getting worse?

Travelers can usually expect an uptick in traffic during major holidays like Thanksgiving, but there are some factors this year that could add to the congestion. 

A potentially disruptive storm could be hitting central and southern U.S. early next week, potentially bringing heavy snow, rain and winds. 

Car accidents are another concern this time of year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration warns that drivers have been making “risky decisions” since the pandemic began, including driving impaired or without a seat belt.  

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The agency estimates 20,160 people died in motor vehicle crashes in the first half of the year, up 18% over 2020 and the largest number of projected fatalities in that time frame since 2006.

The NHTSA has also found an uptick in impaired drivers during the holidays. From 2015 to 2019, nearly 800 people died in crashes involving a drunk driver over Thanksgiving weekend. 

“If we thought it was a problem before COVID, it’s definitely a problem now,” Pishue said. “We hope to see fewer fatalities and road accidents and collisions, but with how things have been going during COVID, it’s definitely a concern.”

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Which cities have the worst Thanksgiving traffic?

Not all traffic is created equal. Here are some of the worst congestion times within U.S. traffic corridors on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving:

Atlanta: Interstate 85 South from Clairmont Road to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive is expected to be 340% above normal between 1:30 and 3:30 p.m.

Boston: Interstate 93 North from Quincy Market to Massachusetts Route 28 is expected to be 240% above normal between 1 and 3 p.m.

Chicago: Interstate 290 West from Morgan Street to Wolfe Road is expected to be 329% above normal from 2:45 to 4:45 p.m.

Detroit: Interstate 96 West from 6 Mile Road to Walled Lake is expected to be 211% above normal from 2 to 4 p.m.

Houston: Interstate 10 West from Sjolander Road to Texas State Highway 330 is expected to be 344% above normal from 3:15 to 5:15 p.m. 

Los Angeles: Interstate 5 South from Colorado Street to Florence Avenue is expected to be 385% above normal between 3:45 and 5:45 p.m. 

New York: Interstate 495 East from Borden Avenue to Little Neck Parkway is expected to be 482% above normal from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. 

San Francisco: Interstate 80 East from Interstate 580 to San Pablo Dam Road is expected to be 278% above normal from 4 to 6 p.m.

Seattle: Interstate 5 South from Washington State Route 18 to Washington State Route 7 is expected to be 257% above normal from 4 to 6 p.m. 

Washington, D.C.: Interstate 95 South from Interstate 395 to Virginia State Route 123 is expected to be 230% above normal from 2 to 4 p.m. 

Follow USA TODAY reporter Bailey Schulz on Twitter: @bailey_schulz

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