The number of people hitting the road for the big Christmas getaway is expected to plummet this year – as many stay at home due to the pandemic.
Drivers across the UK are collectively planning in the region of 13 million separate trips by car to see family and friends during the coronavirus ‘travel window’ between 23 and 27 December.
But research by the RAC suggests a fifth of Brits – 22 per cent – won’t be travelling at all because of the virus.
The busiest time for travelling is expected to be on the day that restrictions are eased – December 23 – with 3.1 million motorists taking to the road, with the M5 and M4 expected to be busy.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are predicted to see 2.8 million and 2.5 million trips respectively, around the same number as are traditionally planned for these days based on an analysis of RAC data over the last five years.
A further 2.1 million people expect to travel between December 23 and 27, but aren’t sure on which days yet.
Predicted trips by car, 2020
Average predicted trips by car, 2015-2019
The research, conducted after the UK Government announced family and friends would be allowed to meet up in person over a limited number of days by forming a three-household bubble, shows how pronounced the effect of the pandemic might be on travel habits this Christmas.
Nearly three-in-10 (28%) fewer drivers say they are planning to use major roads to visit friends or family this year compared to last.
In total, more than half (57%) aren’t planning on visiting friends or family by car at all, with 22% citing concerns about coronavirus, with the remainder (35%) saying it is for other reasons.
The ‘coronavirus effect’ is most evident after Christmas Day when traffic is expected to tail off drastically – with drivers only planning an estimated 1.6 million trips on Boxing Day, which is in stark contrast to previous years when there are usually 4.5 million journeys.
On Sunday 27 December just 933,000 trips are planned.
It is hoped the fact less people will be travelling will benefit normally packed routes, such as the M5, and see less of the festive gridlock faced by motorists.
RAC research suggests drivers will favour local trips this year, indicating problems with congestion may be more concentrated on smaller, town and city roads rather than major motorways.
Nearly six-in-10 (57%) expect their longest return trip to be no more than 50 miles in length, with a quarter (25%) saying it will be up to just 10 miles. Just over a quarter (27%) say their longest journey by car will be in excess of 100 miles.
RAC Breakdown spokesman Rod Dennis 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 December 23 being the focus of what will be a much less pronounced Christmas ‘getaway’ than we’ve grown to expect.
“An estimated 5.3 million 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.
“Whether drivers are using their cars for longer journeys this Christmas, or staying much more local, our teams will be working as hard as ever to keep people moving and give them peace of mind at the end of what has been a challenging and unprecedented year.”
Highways England has also announced 96 per cent of its motorways and major A roads will be roadwork free from 6am on December 20 to help with the big festive getaway.
Some 778 miles of roadworks on England’s motorways and major A-roads will be removed from the road network from 6am on Sunday 20 December to 12:01am on Monday 4 January 2021.
Where essential roadworks must continue, speed limits will be set at 60mph where possible.
As well as keeping roadworks to an absolute minimum, Highways England’s traffic officers will help people stay on the move by changing their working hours to meet peaks in traffic volumes.