Record number of Carolinians travel for Christmas, New Year’s

slyttle@charlotteobserver.comDecember 22, 2013 

A record number of Carolinas residents – more than 4.1 million – are expected to travel more than 50 miles this Christmas and New Year’s holiday, according to AAA Carolinas.

Experts say those who fly will find crowded airports and parking lots.

Those who drive will find mostly construction-free travel, plenty of company from law enforcement officers and gasoline prices that are largely the same as last Christmas and New Year’s.

The weather could be a problem for anyone hitting the road Monday, but forecasters say conditions should be much quieter for the rest of the week.

The big concern, officials say, is safety.

“As the longest holiday travel period of the year, the Christmas/New Year’s holiday is also one of the deadliest,” said David Parsons, president and CEO of AAA Carolinas.

“Drivers should buckle up and avoid drinking and driving, speeding and texting behind the wheel.”

Last year, 37 people died in North Carolina collisions, and police say 38 percent of those fatal wrecks involved a drunken driver. In nearly half the cases, the victim wasn’t wearing a seat belt.

There were 21 fatal wrecks in South Carolina during the Christmas/New Year’s holiday last year, and eight of the victims were not wearing a seat belt. The number of fatal wrecks involving a drunken driver was not available.

Here is a look at what to expect:

Air travel

Construction of a new parking deck at Charlotte Douglas International Airport means there are fewer parking spots. Travelers out of Charlotte handled that problem without too much trouble over Thanksgiving.

On Sunday afternoon, more than half the airport parking lots were full, but officials say there is plenty of additional space for travelers.

Air fares are down 3 percent from last Christmas. Charlotte airport officials say the busiest return days are Thursday and Friday. They say last Friday was the busiest day for departing travelers.

Auto travel

AAA Carolinas says 90.5 percent of holiday travelers will drive to their destinations.

Work on nearly all highway construction projects in the two states will be suspended until Jan. 6. That includes two bottlenecks in the Charlotte region – on U.S. 321 in Blowing Rock and at the Interstate 77/Interstate 40 interchange project in Statesville.

The N.C. Department of Transportation’s Shelby office says some work will take place on U.S. 321, but it will not involve traffic control. In Statesville, crews will resume construction on the night of Jan. 2.

Patience will be important for motorists, because collisions are likely to cause major slowdowns. That was the case Sunday, with I-77 northbound in Charlotte, I-40 eastbound in Statesville and I-85 southbound near Harris Boulevard each slowed by wrecks that closed lanes and caused major backups.

Gas prices

AAA Carolinas says gas prices are nearly the same this holiday period as they were a year ago, and at Thanksgiving.

The average price of a gallon of regular gas is $3.23 in North Carolina and $3.06 in South Carolina. The N.C. price is the same as last year at Christmas/New Year’s, while the South Carolina price is up 4 cents.

Across the Southeast, motorists generally will find gas prices down 1 or 2 cents from Thanksgiving and last Christmas.

Police presence

Both states have drunken driving campaigns under way through New Years Day.

North Carolina’s Booze It and Lose It program began Dec. 13. Police will be conducting checkpoints across the state until the weekend of Jan. 4.

South Carolina’s campaign is titled Sober or Slammer, and it also includes both stepped-up patrols and drunken driving checkpoints.

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