Larry Copeland, USA TODAY
The fatal crash the day before Thanksgiving last year was heartbreaking: young newlyweds from New Jersey, married in a near-secret ceremony just two months earlier, killed on Interstate 95 in South Carolina as they drove to visit the groom's mother.
Ibtissam Abdallah, 29, and her new husband, Marquest Thomas, 27, were killed instantly on the afternoon of Nov. 23, when they lost control of their 2001 Mercury, ran off the road, hit a guardrail, overturned and slammed into a bridge support, according to the South Carolina Highway Patrol.
Their deaths devastated their family and friends in Springfield and Plainfield, N.J. "They were just so beautiful together," says Thomas' grandfather, Harvey Judkins, 89, of Plainfield, who was his grandson's best man. "That boy was my heart. Everybody who ever met him was crazy about him from the get-go. And his wife was just a jewel."
Millions of Americans are preparing to make their way across the USA for the Thanksgiving feast this week, and the overwhelming majority of them - 90%, according to auto club AAA - will travel by automobile.
They'll be setting out during what's usually one of the year's deadliest weeks for traffic crashes. As drivers head home for the turkey and dressing, many will be navigating unfamiliar roads. Many will be driving late at night, when they're more susceptible to drowsiness, or on riskier two-lane roads. And many will get behind the wheel after having too much to drink.
"Whenever traffic volume goes up, crashes generally go up as well," says Allen Parrish, director of the University of Alabama Center for Advanced Public Safety. "This isn't really rocket science here: You have a lot of people on the roads over Thanksgiving, so the crashes are naturally going to get worse."
The good news, perhaps, is that this year, there may be slightly fewer Thanksgiving travelers driving in much of the nation, according to INRIX, a Seattle-based firm that tracks traffic congestion nationwide.
Nationally, INRIX says, congestion on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when most people travel, will be down by 4% compared with last Thanksgiving. Overall, congestion nationally is down 25% this year through October compared with last year, the company says.
"We're still down 5 million jobs from the start of the recession," says Jim Bak, INRIX's director of community relations. "Fuel prices have remained relatively high. The economy is still tenuous. Folks will still encounter traffic out there on the roads that will impact their travel times, but it's not going to impact it as much as a year ago."
INRIX's projection is based on traffic data collected from approximately 100 million vehicles across the USA.
In its annual Thanksgiving forecast, AAA projects that the number of people driving 50 miles or more from home during the Thanksgiving weekend will increase slightly, by 0.6% over last year to 39.1 million. "Americans continue to find ways to economize their budgets so they can gather around the holiday table to carve the turkey," says AAA CEO Robert Darbelnet.
Making their way to the holiday table is often quite challenging.
Each year, hundreds of them - like the newlywed Thomases - never make it.
Abdallah and Thomas met in 2008 while they were students at Union County College in Cranford, N.J.
Abdallah, a native of the Comoros Islands off the coast of Madagascar in Africa, had just been accepted at Columbia University where she planned to study accounting. Thomas, who was studying aerospace engineering at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, was a fourth-generation employee of his family's funeral home.
"They were just made for each other," Judkins says.
After saying their vows on Sept. 12, 2011, at a ceremony with just 10 family members present, the newlyweds set out the Wednesday before Thanksgiving for Goose Creek, S.C., to spend the holiday with his mother, Dylane Kelly.
According to statistics, they were traveling at a time of heightened danger on the nation's roads:
During each Thanksgiving week from 2005-2010, the average number of traffic fatalities nationwide was 798; for all other weeks, the average was 748, according to a new University of Alabama analysis of federal data on road deaths.
A 2009 study by the Highway Loss Data Institute, an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that publishes insurance loss statistics, found that Thanksgiving is one of four federal holidays, along with New Year's Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day, when there is a higher-than-average ratio of fatal crashes.
More people, 431, died on Thanksgiving Day 2010, the most recent year for which data is available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), than any other holiday that year.
It's not just fatal crashes that rise during the Thanksgiving travel time. Sometimes, it's an annoying fender-bender that makes someone late for dinner.
A few years ago, Shelby Erickson, 27, of Seattle, and a friend were driving home from Washington State University on a rainy afternoon two days before Thanksgiving.
They were on Interstate 90 when a deer ran from the grassy median toward her car. She swerved to avoid a collision but clipped the deer's rear end with the right corner of her car. "We were just terrified," she says. "It was like a movie. We just screamed at the top of our lungs."
Nobody was hurt, but they were two to three hours late getting home. "I think we got lucky," Erickson says. "I know accidents with deer can be fatal."
A 2011 study of Thanksgiving crashes in Alabama by the Center for Advanced Public Safety found that Interstate crashes soared by 25% during Thanksgiving week. Parrish, the center's director, attributes the increase partly to people driving in unfamiliar areas for the holiday.
Among other significant factors in crashes in Alabama and the rest of the nation: drunken driving, speeding, time of day and weather. According to NHTSA, 40% of the fatal Thanksgiving crashes last year involved drunken driving. The long Wednesday-Sunday effectively creates several party nights in a row.
In Alabama, speeding was a factor in twice as many fatal crashes during Thanksgiving week as it was during other weeks - possibly an indication of people rushing to reach their destinations.
There were 20% more fatal crashes nationally in the 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. travel period during Thanksgiving week than other weeks. Not surprisingly, there also were more crashes in rain or on wet pavement. "Tuesday was by far the worst day for crashes during Thanksgiving 2011, and that's because of the weather," Parrish says.
It'll come as no surprise to Erickson that deer strikes are also a common cause of Thanksgiving crashes in many parts of the nation.
November is the middle of the fall mating season for deer, when males roam in search of females. From July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2012, there were an estimated 1.23 million vehicle-deer collisions in the USA; more than 18% of those crashes occurred during November, according to insurer State Farm.
The gas-price connection
According to INRIX, traffic congestion on "getaway day" - the Wednesday before Thanksgiving - will be a bit lower this year than a year ago in most metropolitan areas. But it's still going to be bad.
"On Wednesday, trips will take 26% longer, on average, than on a regular weekday," Bak says. "But collectively, it will not be nearly as bad as a year ago.
"The exceptions will be in places where gas prices have remained relatively in check, and the economy is doing relatively well," he says. "That's where we're seeing increases in (Thanksgiving) traffic. In Houston, there's going to be a 30% increase on the Wednesday getaway. They have some of the best fuel prices in the country."
On the other hand, drivers leaving the Philadelphia area should find the going noticeably easier than last year.
"Philadelphia is suffering from higher fuel prices," Bak says. "Also, their economy is based on the manufacturing sector. There's been some improvement in that sector in the last year or so, but manufacturing is still relatively flat."
Although AAA expects an uptick in Thanksgiving travel, the auto club says Americans will travel a shorter distance this year than last - 588 miles vs. 706 miles - and will spend 10% less.
Holiday a sad reminder
In New Jersey last Dec. 3, more than 800 people attended the funeral for Abdallah and Thomas, according to Thomas' grandfather. After the service, they were buried together in a single grave in Scotch Plains, N.J.
Nearly a year later, with Thanksgiving approaching, Judkins says the ever-present sense of loss is particularly acute.
"I feel it right now," he says. "I've been to group therapy, and that's been some help. But the reality is coming back.
"It's very emotional," he says, voice cracking. "I miss that boy."
Contributing: Bart Jansen