The planned easing of travel restrictions ahead of Christmas is expected to bring a sharp rise in traffic levels as millions of people hit the road for the holidays.
New analysis of driver intentions shows that leisure journeys - those not related to work travel - are set to jump on Wednesday, December 23 compared with the days around it and even previous years.
However, overall travel during the holidays looks likely to be far less than usual, in part due to fears over Covid-19, with the usual post-Christmas rush collapsing.
The data from the RAC suggests that 3.1 million leisure journeys will be taken by car on December 23 - the day restrictions are due to ease in England, Scotland and Wales allowing three-household "bubbles". That’s more than the average of 2.4m seen in the previous five years.
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Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are expected to follow similar patterns to previous years, with around 2.8m and 2.5m journeys per day. However, Boxing Day, which usually brings a huge leap in traffic, is expected to be unusually quiet. Rather than the usual 4.5m trips, only around 1.6m journeys are expected to be taken, with a similar decline on December 27.
According to the RAC research, more than half of drivers (57 per cent) aren’t planning on visiting friends or family by car at all, and a fifth (22 per cent) said this was due to concerns about coronavirus.
The research also suggests congestion could be more concentrated around towns and cities as drivers plan shorter local journeys rather than long-distance trips to visit friends and family. Only a quarter (27 per cent) plan to travel more than 100 miles while 57 per cent expect their longest return trip to be no more than 50 miles in length, and 25 per cent say it will be up to just 10 miles.
The lower traffic levels should bring some relief from the usual festive hold-ups and traffic jams but the RAC’s breakdown spokesman Rod Dennis warned that there could still be issues on the roads.
He said: The pandemic looks set to have a profound effect on drivers’ plans to see family and friends at Christmas time this year. Despite the loosening of restrictions to allow people to meet up as part of ‘festive bubbles’, our figures suggest many drivers aren’t keen – with a fifth saying the coronavirus is the reason why they’re not travelling.
“That’s not to say the roads will be empty over Christmas. Our research indicates millions of leisure journeys on major motorways and A-roads will still be taken, with 23 December being the focus of what will be a much less pronounced Christmas ‘getaway’ than we’ve grown to expect. An estimated 5.3m trips to see family and friends will take place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day combined, roughly in line with other years – and we expect many of these to be more local journeys.
“It’s also the case that just a single breakdown or road collision can cause traffic to quickly snarl up and cause delays. This could especially be the case with drivers opting for more local journeys this year rather than the familiar criss-crossing of the country that tends to happen at Christmas time.
“Everyone can do their bit to reduce the chances of breaking down by checking over their car before they set out. Checking the tread, condition and pressure of tyres, together with oil, coolant and screenwash levels, make the chances of an unwelcome breakdown much less likely. This is even more important in a year when vehicles have been used less regularly. Drivers should also ensure they plan their journeys before they set out.”