The first time I ever got to write in this space was in place of Mark Arum in 2015 and it was a primer with data predictions of travel data ahead of Turkey Day. Thanksgiving is the busiest travel holiday period of the year, as air and car-trips are condensed into a few short days of hustle to and from family gatherings and short vacations.
With COVID-19 restrictions far more relaxed than the last two years (though the virus still remains an insidious threat), AAA predicts Thanksgiving traffic levels to notch up to 98% of pre-pandemic volume. AAA has been tracking this data since 2000 and says that the heaviest Thanksgivings were in 2005 and 2019.
The auto club also predicts that 2022 will see 1.5% more people traveling 50 miles or more from home than in 2021.
Essentially, last year was heavy enough and this year will be a bit worse.
The game of “planes, trains, and automobiles” as 95.5 WSB’s “Atlanta’s Morning News” host Scott Slade says, truly involves picking the exact-right times to haul the family down the road.
AAA leans on numbers from traffic data firm INRIX to issue its advice and predictions. As always, the times of heaviest traffic volume nationwide are between four and eight p.m. on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and in the same windows on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday after.
INRIX also predicts all of the highest peaks – the interstates that see the most dramatic increases in delays from their normal conditions – will be on Wednesday afternoon. They predict I-85/southbound will see 105% more traffic than normal from Clairmont Road (Exit 91) in Brookhaven and down I-75/85/southbound to near I-20 (Exit 247).
But that won’t be the only slow freeway or even the heaviest. I-75 both ways in Henry County (especially northbound), I-75 both ways between Cartersville and Marietta, and the northeast quad of I-285 (between GA-400 and I-20 in Fulton and DeKalb) will also see dramatic volume increases, INRIX says.
Really, most Metro Atlanta freeways will be on jam starting at about lunchtime on the eve of the big feasts.
Thanksgiving morning is the best time to hit the road, but the heaviest volume on that day is between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., AAA and INRIX say.
If the road trips have to take place in the heavier peak times, a driver should have a Peach Pass to use the tolled Express Lanes and bypass the heaviest pockets along I-75 in the northwest and southeastern suburbs.
Travel on Thanksgiving morning will be a bit trickier in the heart of Downtown Atlanta, as the annual Invesco QQQ Thanksgiving Day Half Marathon, 5K, Mile, and Dash closes all or parts of many streets in the heart of the city and around Center Parc/GSU Stadium. Most of those streets will leave one or more lanes open for travel, but there will be a lot of traffic on I-75/85 (Downtown Connector) exiting in both directions in that area early on Thursday to run the race.
If travels involve the flying metal toothpaste tubes in the sky, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport will be jammed. Parking onsite is at a premium, due to the ATL Next project, so consider parking offsite and taking shuttles or consider taking MARTA straight to the domestic terminals.
AAA predicts 23% more air travelers than last year, but those 1.4 million people make up only 8% of those leaving town. Over 89% of Thanksgiving commuters will be in their cars – an astounding difference.
Besides charting the correct departure times, vehicle maintenance is also crucial before road trips.
“A full tank of gas and property inflated tires are a great way to start a trip,” WSB Triple Team Traffic’s Ashley Frasca told the AJC’s Alexis Stevens. Tire pressure is especially key, since Georgia weather has gotten so drastically cold lately. Pumping in the right amount of air also improves gas mileage, too. Check the recommended psi on the tires themselves or on the info sticker inside the driver’s door.
Drivers should make sure oil and filter changes are up to date and that they aren’t going on long trips ahead of major pending projects, like brake replacements.
The more stress a vehicle takes (road trips are more extreme cases), the more exposed that vehicle’s problems become.
“Everyone on the road with you wants to arrive safely and on time, too. So allow yourself plenty of time to get to your destination and don’t follow too closely in traffic,” Frasca advised.
With that said, the Thanksgiving travel period is the deadliest holiday on the roads, according to data from the National Highway Travel Safety Administration (NHTSA) and compiled by drivers education company Zutobi. Over 2,400 people have been killed on the roads during this period from 2016 to 2020.
More people, more cars, more distractions, more fatigue, more booze, more problems: more attrition.
A dose of common sense and two scoops of patience are musts for the perfect Thanksgiving travel recipe. And if that travel involves holding a pretty wheel, that recipe calls for zero alcohol.
Drive safely, friends. I am thankful for you.
Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.
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Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com