Record number of travelers take to the road for the holidays

Traffic moves along Interstate 24 on the afternoon of December 21, 2016.
photo Traffic moves along Interstate 24 on the afternoon of December 21, 2016.

A record 103 million Americans are expected to travel for Christmas and New Year's despite a spike in gas prices only a few short weeks ahead of the holidays.

According to AAA, that number represents 1.5 million more people traveling than last year, which can be attributed to improvements in the labor market and rising wages since the last holiday season.

Just shy of 94 million people will be reaching their destinations by car, shouldering the cost of the largest December rise in gas prices in six years, according to a report by GasBuddy, a tech company that relies on crowdsourced information to monitor gas prices.

On Tuesday, GasBuddy reported the national average for a gallon of gas was $2.25 and rising, compared to an average of $1.99 at the same time last year.

"When The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries announced production cuts November 30, we knew we were likely to see gasoline prices rise almost immediately," said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst at GasBuddy.

"There's never a good time to see gas prices rise, but ahead of the holidays just seems like the worst."

Gas prices have increased in December only once in five years, when the national average rose a meager 5 cents in 2013. Motorists are expected to pay an additional $120 to $180 for gas next year.

Still, after a year of persistently low gas prices, AAA estimates American drivers have saved more than $27 billion at the pump this year compared to 2015 and will pay the second-cheapest New Year's Day gas prices since 2009, when the national average was $1.62.

"Tis the season for holiday travel, and this year more Americans will travel to celebrate the holidays and ring in the New Year than ever before," said AAA President and CEO Marshall Doney.

"Rising incomes and continued low gas prices should make for a joyous holiday travel season."

With so many people taking to the roads, state agencies are making efforts to get out of the way as much as possible.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation will halt all lane closures on interstates and state highways for almost two full weeks, from 6 a.m. on Friday to 6 a.m. Jan. 3.

However, that doesn't mean travelers can or should speed through construction zones, said Jennifer Flynn, a spokeswoman for TDOT's Chattanooga office.

"Even though construction-related closures will be suspended during the holiday period, workers may still be on-site in some construction zones. Drivers should obey all posted speed limits, particularly in construction areas," Flynn wrote in an email.

"Slower speeds are necessary in work zones due to the temporary layout of the roadway and will be enforced. Drivers convicted of speeding through work zones where workers are present face a fine of $250 to $500, plus court fees and possible increased insurance premiums."

She also encouraged drivers to focus on the road this holiday season by checking travel conditions before setting out and putting away cellphones while behind the wheel.

Amy Maxwell, spokeswoman for Hamilton County Emergency Services, echoed that encouragement in a press release, reminding drivers about the dangers of driving while texting.

"Put that cellphone away; distracted driving causes one-quarter of all crashes," she said.

She also directed travelers to follow basic safety tips by using designated drivers, buckling up and carrying an emergency kit somewhere in the car.

"Be prepared for heavy traffic on the roadways," she said. "A proactive approach to safety will help give the gift of safety to your family and friends this holiday season."

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at or 423-757-6731. Follow on Twitter @emmettgienapp.