While time will tell whether last week’s COVID-19 restrictions to limit gatherings before Thanksgiving helped curb soaring case numbers, DUI crashes and arrests in the Philadelphia region were disproportionately steady over the holiday travel period, given the measures and expected lower traffic volumes, according to figures provided by Pennsylvania State Police and the Philadelphia Police Department.
Philly police recorded the same number of DUI arrests — 18 — this year and last. And while DUI arrests recorded by the Pennsylvania State Police’s Troop K, covering Philadelphia, Montgomery, and Delaware Counties, dropped from last year, there were two more DUI crashes in 2020 than in 2019, as well as one crash fatality, just as there was last year, according to preliminary data from state police.
“Those numbers are disappointing considering all of the warnings and COVID-19 mitigation measures put in place not only here in Pennsylvania, but also in the tristate area,” said Jana Tidwell, AAA spokesperson. “That would tell me that people are not heeding these warnings, and that they are finding a way to hang out, to drink with friends.”
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving through the Sunday after the holiday is typically “the busiest travel period of the year,” she said. It’s a period busier than end-of-year travel, since commuters have but a few days to dart between holiday celebrations instead of the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
The day before Thanksgiving, commonly referred to as “Blackout Wednesday,” is a heavy drinking day as friends and family get together, and college students reunite with high school classmates at local watering holes.
But this year was different. Health officials pleaded with Americans not to travel during Thanksgiving to keep COVID-19 cases from spreading, and many complied. More than 80% of Pennsylvanians said they would stay home for Thanksgiving, 40% doing so because of COVID-19, according to a AAA survey released before the holiday. Traffic volumes along the Pennsylvania Turnpike were down an average of about 33% between Wednesday and Saturday compared with 2019, according to the Turnpike.
PennDot was unable to provide comparative Thanksgiving travel data. Daily passenger travel in the Philly region through mid-November was down an average of 21% compared with pre-pandemic levels, said Brad Rudolph, a PennDot spokesperson.
Coupled with warnings and fewer drivers on the road, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine ordered restaurants and bars to halt on-premise wine, beer, and liquor sales on Thanksgiving Eve in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“Although that did help out a lot, that’s not going to stop people from drinking, of course,” said Pennsylvania State Trooper William Butler. “You still have Wine and Spirits [stores], and people still have access to alcohol, and that’s not going to stop them. They can drink in their homes.”
Despite bar closures and lower traffic volumes earlier in the pandemic, DUI arrests also bounced back over the summer in Pennsylvania. And this year has been a “horrific” year for traffic deaths in Philadelphia, with 24 people killed in crashes just in July.
“People just naturally want to go faster, just because there’s more open road, and some people don’t make wise decisions,” Butler said. “They drive too fast, make an unsafe lane change and lose control, and before you know it, you’ve crashed.”
Philadelphia police provided comparative figures between Wednesday through Friday last week and Nov. 27 through Nov. 29 last year, what the department defines as its Thanksgiving period. It did not provide crash data. State police shared regional crash and arrest statistics from this past Wednesday through Sunday compared with Nov. 27 through Dec. 1, 2019.
How mitigation measures and lower traffic volumes impacted the entire state during the Thanksgiving travel period is tough to say. State police released Thanksgiving enforcement figures last year but didn’t require troops to report statewide enforcement numbers this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Cpl. Brent Miller, Pennsylvania State Police spokesperson.
“Whether it is a COVID-19 year, a quarantine period, or a traditional Thanksgiving holiday weekend, impaired driving is 100% preventable,” Tidwell said. “People need to be smart about it, have a plan in advance. Don’t endanger yourself, but don’t endanger everybody else out there on the roadways.”