Holidays to bring busy highways

With Christmas only a day away, AAA Mid-Atlantic is telling motorists to expect traffic as more than one third of Virginians will travel 50 miles or more away from home.

AAA expects 2.8 million Virginians to take to the roads, a 3.5 percent increase from last year and the highest volume since the group began recording the data in 2001. AAA defines the year-end holiday travel period as between Dec. 23 to Jan. 4.

Martha Meade, a public relations manager with AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the low gas prices, about $.79 less than last year, is a major contributor to the increase in travel.

“Gas prices, in the past when they reached high prices, tended to impact people’s decisions to travel, but as gas prices got higher and higher and sustained that level, folks began to adjust their budgets accordingly,” Meade said.

“This year, because we have gotten lower gas prices, it is kind of an early Christmas gift because it allows them to have more money in their pocket to spend shopping for presents.”

Meade said this time of year generally sees a dip in gas prices due to the switch over to more affordable winter blends.

“The summer blends of gasoline are more environmentally friendly, but they’re more expensive to produce,” Meade said. “The demand in the winter goes down and more of the fuel is being used for heating.”

While gas prices are set to continue to drop well into 2015, Meade said motorists shouldn’t get too comfortable.

“As we’ve seen in the last five to seven years, gas prices in America are very volatile, so it would be premature to assume these kinds of prices for the long term,” Meade said. “I think the better advice is to enjoy it while we have it, but don’t expect the prices to stay like this forever.”

Meade credited the lower prices in part to House Bill 2313 passed in 2013, which eliminated the gas tax on a retail level, while increasing the wholesale tax Jan. 1, 2015.

Ken Slack, a Virginia Department of Transportation spokesperson, said while VDOT will be lifting lane closures across the state today through Friday and Dec. 31 to Jan. 2 in most major work zones, the traffic around Christmas and New Year’s is generally not as heavy as Thanksgiving.

“People get off of work at different times and children get out of school on different days, so we don’t see that concentration typical of Thanksgiving weekend,” Slack said. “We certainly anticipate heavy travel on those days.”

Slack said in Frederick, Shenandoah and Warren counties, motorists should expect heavy traffic on Interstate 81.

“Unlike I-95, which is flat and has a lot of car traffic, I-81 is a little hilly and has some turns and a lot of tractor trailer trucks,” Slack said. “Those trucks cause a speed deferential on the highway, which causes slowdowns.”

Slack also said with rain coming into the area on Christmas Eve, travelers should be especially alert for delays.

“Take your time on the road,” Slack said. “Rain is better than snow, but when you’re traveling, just be extra cautious.”

Corinne Geller, public relations manager for the Virginia State Police, said families traveling over the holidays need to plan ahead and prepare for the unexpected.

“Folks need to make sure they give themselves plenty of time to adjust to inclement weather or to shear volume or traffic accidents,” Geller said.

Geller said 75 percent of the Virginia State Police would be patrolling the roads from today through Friday and Dec. 31 to Jan. 2.

“That’s the one thing about us, we go to work when everybody else has off,” Geller said. “We will have pretty much our entire uniformed force out on the roads.”

Geller recommended the following tips:

  • Buckle up and make sure children are secured in the car.
  • Call 511 for road conditions before traveling.
  • If traveling with a carrier on top of the roof, make sure it is secured.
  • Make sure the vehicle is working condition, including headlights, windshield wipers, turn signals and tail lights.
  • Be well rested before getting behind the wheel of a car. Geller said driving while sleep deprived is just as bad as drinking and driving and the safest way to do an overnight trip is to drive in shifts.
  • Do not drink and drive.
  • Stop at rest areas or gas stations, not on the side of the interstate.
  • If involved in an accident and are able to, move the car to the side of the road and call the state police.
  • Do not operate a cell phone while driving.

Geller, Slack and Meade all said motorists should expect heavy traffic the Sundays after Christmas and New Year’s.

Contact staff writer Henry Culvyhouse at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or hculvyhouse@nvdaily.com