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By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/18/2010 9:05:34 AM ET 2010-11-18T14:05:34

There’s good news and bad news for motorists this holiday season.

America’s roads have never been safer, statistics show. But, depending where you live, they may never be slower.

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"The big new trend this year is the construction," said Carol White, co-author of "Live Your Road Trip Dream." "With all the TARP funds rolling out on highway projects, last summer was a mess, and I think it is going to continue into the winter months in areas where weather permits."

Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the federal government has spent $27 billion for highway and bridge construction in the last two years.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, America will find itself in the middle of the stimulus construction during the holidays.

Of the 13,300 road construction projects, more than 6,100 are under construction and more than 5,800 projects have been completed, the agency says.

At the same time, AAA projects a double-digit increase in the number of Thanksgiving travelers — it’s expected to be up 11 percent from last year — with approximately 42 million travelers taking a trip at least 50 miles away from home.

Sticking to the road
Automobiles remain the dominant mode of transportation for holiday travel, with 94 percent of travelers, or about 40 million people, expected to reach their destination by driving.

That’s an increase of 12 percent from last Thanksgiving, when 35 million Americans drove to their holiday destination.

"The unemployment rate remains relatively high, so it’s likely people will be out driving in larger volumes," said Karl Brauer, a senior analyst for Edmunds.com. Brauer and other travel experts say the number of people opting to drive instead of fly could be significantly higher than the 88 percent recorded for the 2009 Christmas and New Year’s holiday.

Jobless jitters aren’t the only worries keeping travelers grounded.

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The price of fuel is relatively affordable. AAA expects the national average price for a gallon of self-serve regular gasoline to remain between $2.85 and $2.95 during the Thanksgiving holiday travel period.

Interactive: Calculating the cost of getting to Grandma’s (on this page)

Meanwhile, hassles in air travel are spurring more Americans to travel by car.

In November, the Transportation Security Administration made three important changes to the way it handles security:

  • It began enforcing its name matching requirements for airline tickets. Passengers now have to provide their full name as it appears on government-issued ID, date of birth and gender, when they book a flight.
  • The government banned printer cartridges from luggage after a terrorism scare involving cargo.
  • TSA imposed several new screening measures, including an enhanced pat-down protocol for air travelers who opt out of the full-body scanners.

Cheryl McCartey, who is retired from the military, said she decided to stop flying altogether when she heard about the full-body scans. “I understand the need for the metal detectors — even for the modified pat down — but in no way will I allow anyone to humiliate me while uttering the words ‘national security’," she said.

Road safety
Fortunately, America’s roads are safer than ever. But experts warn that we shouldn’t take it for granted.

Video: Skies, roads to be stuffed for Thanksgiving (on this page)

The fatality and injury data for 2009 put the number of highway deaths — 33,808, or 1.13 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled — at the lowest rate since 1950, according to the Transportation Department.

If the trend holds, then the 2010 holiday driving season should be equally safe, experts say.

However, winter holidays are among the deadliest driving holidays. Over the past three years, Thanksgiving has been the deadliest, according to data supplied by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. New Year's Day and Christmas come in at Nos. 4 and 5 on the list.

New Year’s Day, meanwhile, is the No. 1 holiday for vehicle thefts, according to the National Crime Information Center, with Christmas Eve and Thanksgiving coming in at Nos. 8 and 9, respectively.

Proper maintenance is key
Talk of safety may not matter if motorists don’t get their cars serviced, warned Art Jacobson, a director at CarMD. The average age of vehicles on the road is at an all-time high of 10.3 years.

"Most of these vehicles were designed to a 50,000 mile, 5-year durability standard," he said. "When you consider average age increase, proper maintenance and upkeep on the vehicle is more critical than ever before."

A recent CarMD.com survey found only half of those who’ve ever owned or leased a vehicle follow a regularly scheduled automotive maintenance program and one-quarter admit to stretching out time between services to save money. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 13 percent of vehicle accidents are caused by mechanical failure.

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"Maintaining and replacing the systems on these vehicles as they age is absolutely necessary, and this process is particularly important during the holiday season and cold winter months," he said.

Experts also recommend stocking your smartphone with apps that can help you stay on course during the holidays. Those include navigation systems that pinpoint traffic and let you steer around it (Magellan RoadMate, Navigon’s MobileNavigator and TomTom), avoid speed traps (PhantomAlert or Trapster) and find the closest rest area or attraction (AAA TripTik Mobile iPhone app).

All told, this could be a banner holiday for drivers, both in terms of numbers and in terms of numbers that survive it — as long as they take a few common sense precautions along the way.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org .

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Interactive: Calculating the cost of getting to Grandma’s

Ahhh, Thanksgiving. We hop in the car or head to the airport; we travel cross-town or across the country, and we do it all during one of the busiest travel periods of the year.

Video: Skies, roads to be stuffed for Thanksgiving

Photos: Holiday Travel

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