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Gridlock Guy: Navigating Thanksgiving, holiday shopping, and the time change

More than 55 million Americans are planning to trek 50 miles or further for Thanksgiving this year, according to AAA.

Imagine your favorite Thanksgiving meal — all the tasty morsels and elements — placed in a nice spread on the holiday table. If you’re like me, you mix your food together a bit. I prefer using the mashed potatoes as a palette for the other stronger-tasting items. Get it just right. Now scrape your plate into the blender, the pumpkin pie, too. And pour in that wine, tea, cider, Coke, water — whatever you normally imbibe this joyous day. Pour in everyone else’s plates and cups also. Now set that blender on high; maybe pulse it a couple of times. Gross, right?

» RELATED: Thanksgiving traffic: Here's when (and when not) to travel in Atlanta

Welcome to Atlanta traffic in the fourth quarter.

Atlanta commuters have already faced tremendous challenges in recent times, as volume has ballooned at the height of the fall semester. The early darkness in the time change always adds insult to PM drive and prolongs the ride home. Horrible, long-lasting crash scenes have peppered the days. Major construction continues to kill weekend chill time. Earlier sunsets blind afternoon drives. Fall is a busy time and traffic reflects it.

Bake in the pre-Thanksgiving exodus and the maps on the Triple Team Traffic Alerts App go dark red. Tradition (and data) shows us that Wednesday afternoon is the absolute worst time to travel for Thanksgiving. You’re better suited to try to leave town Thanksgiving morning (the roads are empty then) or earlier in the week.

» RELATED: 8 mistakes to avoid with holiday travel in Georgia 2019

But Wednesday travel may be inevitable for some, so that means others of us can correct for the extra push. For those who have to work and are able to telecommute, this Wednesday is the perfect day for it. Many offices let out early anyway, so taking that half day in the home office would help alleviate some of the road pressure not just for holiday travelers, but for people (like yours truly) who have to work.

Another reason Wednesday could be particularly awful for driving is the weather. WSB Radio meteorologist Kirk Mellish has been studying some models that indicate stormy weather east of the Rockies is very possible in this portion of the week. This forecast could change very easily, but even a probable likelihood of “just add water” to the Thanksgiving drive should change behavior.

For the return trip, the Thanksgiving bounceback is usually the worst on Sunday afternoon and on the south side on I-75. Arm yourself with a Peach Pass to save time, as those Express Lanes stay cheap and are lightly used. The trick will be to make sure the lanes are open in the direction you’re traveling. Traveling back to town on Black Friday is better than trying the outer lying freeways on Sunday, when people are trying to return for the work week.

Black Friday traffic around busy shopping areas will not be that bad on Friday morning. Sure, some will chase deals, but the rush to the malls for the door-busting deals is not nearly the event it was ten years ago. But as the gravy and football comas wear off late in the day Friday, the arteries around those busy shops (and quite possibly those of the shoppers themselves) will be clogged.

Holiday shopping’s effect on the roads is more spread out and gradual. The change to Standard Time has been the first slap in the face to the evening commute, with drivers more drowsy and having to navigate in sunshine at a bad angle and then early darkness. I wrote about this two years ago, and the trend continues. Then extra shoppers jump in the mix and traffic devolves into that terrible ingredient mix from our opening paragraph.

“By the time the (time change) transition wears off, holiday season is upon us, and there is more shopping traffic on the road,” Georgia Tech Senior Research Engineer Angshuman Guin said. Since a shopping-bound driver may not be as versed in their route as the everyday commuter in that area, tensions can arise, Guin said.

“There is also the difference in aggressiveness between drivers, (which) leads to less efficient movement of traffic as well as causes safety hazards.”

As people become more and more rushed or simply begin running more late, tempers flare. When motorists drive at a time or in an area that they are less familiar with, they are likely going to make moves that slow the flow even more. This can hold true for Thanksgiving travelers or holiday shoppers. Be patient.

» RELATED: The best and worst times to drive and shop during Thanksgiving week

We can’t just drive at the worst times and in bad conditions and then complain about the results. Telecommuting and adjusting departure times for Thanksgiving travel will help all parties involved. Exercising patience and scheduling those shopping trips outside of the last minute windows or the PM commute will also help achieve better results.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxmg.com.