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Navigating the Tribulations of Thanksgiving Travel

With another Thanksgiving behind us, we can take a moment to reflect on the logistics of this annual gathering. Much ink has been spilled – or, in this digital age, keystrokes struck (or maybe bytes encoded?) – discussing the history and meaning of this event. Many Americans are increasingly self-reflective with respect to institutionalized race and gender privilege, and with this expanding critical awareness has come new scrutiny of the origins and mythology of Thanksgiving. And with increasing political polarization, the perennial concern about tense dinner conversations is as heightened as ever. But what of the risk of car accident injuries?

The Classic Couples’ Conundrum

Thanksgiving travel has always been a bit of a puzzle. There are so many factors to consider when making plans for the holiday. Various family commitments must be juggled and considered as one tries to decide which of various dinner invitations to accept. Do Thanksgiving invitations out-compete Friendsgiving meals? What if two sides of the family both hold competing meals? Most couples with competing family invitations will adopt one of three strategies:

  • The year-on, year-off method
  • The quid pro quo method
  • The both/and method

The first of these three strategies is to alternate years; for example, on odd-numbered years the couple will attend Thanksgiving with the first partner’s family, and on even-numbered years the couple will attend the meal alongside the other partner’s family. The second of the three main strategies is to trade holidays entirely. In this model, the couple designates Thanksgiving as “belonging” to one side of the union and then assigns another holiday (often Christmas) to the other side of the family in exchange. This approach works especially well in families where there is an asymmetry in the enthusiasm the two sets of extended relations assign to Thanksgiving or some other holiday.

The third approach is to try and “do it all”: the couple attends a Thanksgiving meal with one side of the family and then wraps up and spends time with the other family. This is most feasible when the two sides of the family are located in the same town, or at a distance of no more than two hours’ travel time. (“Travel time” in this context almost invariably means “driving time,” since the availability of buses and flights adds yet another variable to an already difficult calculation.) This model is available to many families that live in Nevada’s two major urban areas. One can easily traverse the Reno-Sparks area within this time-frame, especially given that the roads tend to be vacant on Thanksgiving Day. Even in an extreme scenario – say, traveling from Cold Springs in the far northwest corner of the greater Reno area to Spanish Springs in the northeast quadrant of Sparks or to the South Meadows area of Reno – the travel time is unlikely to exceed one hour. This is a trickier proposition in the Las Vegas area, both because the travel time from, say, the Summerlin area in the west to the southeastern edge of Henderson can be greater and also because the relatively larger number of drivers in Las Vegas makes it more likely that one will encounter a vehicular accident that snarls traffic.

This “both/and” approach also requires certain conditions with respect to the two families’ attitudes. If both families are traditional about Thanksgiving, they will expect the couple to be present (and, of course, to eat) at both meals. The couple may also be expected to contribute a side dish or dessert at each gathering. This in turn puts significant pressure on the couple to manage not only their time but also their appetites on Thanksgiving. This approach is easier to pull off when these expectations are lowered and also when one family will accept the couple appearing in the aftermath of its meal rather than during the main event. Alternatively, the two families may be convinced to hold their meals at significantly disparate times – one family celebrating Thanksgiving with a midday meal and the other observing a later dinner ritual.

Getting from Point A to Point B

Regardless of whether one faces a couples’ conundrum or merely has to transit somewhere to join a Thanksgiving holiday, travel is an endemic part of the holiday’s challenges. The risks of car accidents increase during this week-long stretch before and after the marquee holiday. According to the American Automobile Association, this year’s Thanksgiving travel will be among the most robust in two decades. The auto insurer and driver advocacy group has been tracking holiday travel since 2000, and the current record was set in 2005. With a relatively strong economy and moderate gas and flight prices, this year’s Thanksgiving is expected to come in second, with some 55 million drivers trekking in excess of 50 miles. [1]

A perennial concern around Thanksgiving travel is that drivers will try to maximize their productivity on the Tuesday or Wednesday prior and then “power through” to reach their destination by Thursday’s gathering. This can increase the likelihood of accidents due to speeding, distracted driving, or drowsy driving. Nevada recently received a grant to promote awareness of the risks of drowsy driving, resulting in ad campaigns that have been noted in Reno, Sparks, and Las Vegas among other areas. [2] Because Thanksgiving is observed in late November, winter weather can also be a factor. This year, Interstate 80 had significant chain controls – and outright closures – in the area directly west of Reno. Nonetheless, there were numerous car crashes on that stretch of highway. [3]

Hopefully our readers enjoyed a safe and happy Thanksgiving with their friends and family.






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