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Record-Breaking Holiday Travel Means More Cars, More Concerns

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CARS.COM — To paraphrase Peter Parker’s ill-fated Uncle Ben from “Spider-Man”: “With great savings comes great consumption.” Headed into the official 12 days of Christmas travel — for which the counting period started Dec. 23 and extends through the New Year’s holiday weekend — gas was cheap, and travel forecasts were concurrently blizzardlike in volume as revelers were poised to take advantage of the savings.

Related: 2015 Cars.com Holiday Survival Guide

Travel-services provider AAA projects that by the end of this holiday season, an all-time record of 100 million people will have ventured 50 miles or more from home — 91.3 million of whom were expected to drive. The 1.4 percent bump in the number of motorists on U.S. roads marks the seventh consecutive year of holiday-travel growth.

“The increase in holiday travel this year is being driven by continued improvement in the labor market, rising incomes and low prices, including gas prices that remain well below last year’s levels,” AAA said in a statement. “This is helping boost Americans’ disposable income, but some consumers continue to remain cautious about their finances as they head into the holiday season.”

Indeed, fuel prices reached lows this holiday season that might have seemed unthinkable back when a gallon of regular gas cost more than $4. As of Dec. 21, the national average gas price had dipped below $2 for the first time since early 2009, a milestone industry observers had been speculating about for months. Prices had edged back up to just less than $2.01 a gallon by the official beginning of the travel season, but were still 37 cents cheaper than a year ago at this time.

Still, apart from an improved economy and the joy of a family road trip, the glut of people on the roads also means greater risks. AAA said it expects to provide roadside assistance to 900,000 motorists — nearly 1 percent of the total — during the 12-day period, most commonly for dead batteries, lockouts and flat tires.

Then there’s the danger of drunken driving, only heightened by the holidays as an AAA survey showed that 21 percent of licensed motorists in the past year had driven “when they thought their alcohol level might have been close to, or possibly over, the legal limit.” The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration cited new data showing that among the nearly 10,000 alcohol-related fatalities in 2014, more than two-thirds involved drivers with a blood-alcohol concentration of at least .15, nearly twice the legal limit in every state.

NHTSA said that despite DUI fatalities declining by 1.1 percent last year overall, nearly 800 people died as a result of drunken driving — roughly one every hour. In hopes of reducing DUI deaths this holiday season, NHTSA is promoting its latest “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” campaign tied in to the massive release of the new “Star Wars” movie, “The Force Awakens.” The public-service ad is running before the movie in thousands of theaters across the nation and on TV through New Year’s Day; alternate versions of the ad depict a man and woman looking at themselves in the mirror after a night of drinking and ultimately demonstrating that they can’t trust themselves to properly judge whether they are sober enough to drive.

“In the time it takes to watch a two-hour movie, two or more lives will be lost in drunk-driving-related crashes,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said in a statement. “Drunk driving doesn’t just happen. It’s a decision people make. A decision to break the law can bring with it fatal consequences.”

The campaign enlists the participation of more than 10,000 police departments to crack down on drivers with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 or higher during the holiday travel season. NHTSA encourages holiday revelers to pre-arrange a safe ride home with a sober driver or use its SaferRide smartphone app available at both Google Play and the Apple iTunes store.

And while vehicle owners didn’t have to worry as much about having their cars stolen on Christmas — the lowest among major American holidays for auto theft — the likelihood increases significantly by comparison on New Year’s Day. The Des Plaines, Ill.-based crime-stats crunchers at the National Insurance Crime Bureau reported that Christmas car thefts in 2014 totaled 1,225, ranking dead last at No. 11, while New Year’s ranked second with 2,011.

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Former Assistant Managing Editor-News Matt Schmitz is a veteran Chicago journalist indulging his curiosity for all things auto while helping to inform car shoppers. Email Matt Schmitz

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