Historic gas prices will not stop Memorial Day travel ahead of hot summer season

Historically high prices at the gas pump aren’t stopping travelers or cooling expectations that summer travel will be “on fire” in the US this year.

More than 39 million people will travel 50 miles or more away from home for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, hitting 2017 levels, AAA announced.

“Memorial Day is always a good predictor of what’s to come for summer travel,” Paula Twidale, senior vice president at AAA Travel, said in a news release. “Based on our projections, summer travel is not just heating up, it will be on fire. People are overdue for a vacation and they are looking to catch up on some much-needed R&R in the coming months. ”

Most of those travelers – about 34.9 million people – will be on the road this weekend, even amid rising gas prices.

The highest gas prices Thursday were a little more than $ 6 a gallon for regular-grade gas in California, almost $ 2 more than the lowest price per gallon in Oklahoma, according to AAA.

Pennsylvania was averaging $ 4,766 per gallon on Thursday, with stations around the Lehigh Valley between $ 4.53 at US Gas in Catasauqua to $ 4.89 at the Citgo on Broad Street in Bethlehem, according to GasBuddy.com.

The pain at the pump is expected to continue, with the national average for a gallon of gas hitting California levels for everyone.

“US retail price could surge another 37% by August to a $ 6.20 / gal national average,” Natasha Kaneva, head of commodities research at JPMorgan, said in a note on Tuesday.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission expects traffic to be more than pre-pandemic levels. The commission is forecasting more than 2.2 million drivers over the holiday weekend, an increase of 3% over pre-pandemic 2019 levels.

Friday should be the busiest travel day on the turnpike, with 770,000 vehicles on its roads.

Officials are worried about the combination of a holiday weekend, reckless driving and more cars on the roads.

Dangerous driving with deadly consequences has been a hallmark during the pandemic. US traffic deaths reached a 16-year high in 2021, the 10.5% increase over 2020 fatalities was the largest percentage increase since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration started collecting the data in 1975.

Fatal crashes in Pennsylvania jumped nearly 9% in 2021, the 1,230 people equaling the most traffic deaths in the state since 2012.

“While our traffic volumes are beginning to mirror, or even exceed, the levels prior to the pandemic, poor driving habits made worse during the pandemic – when drivers saw sparser traffic and wide-open roads – are becoming far more dangerous,” Mark Compton , the turnpike’s CEO, said.

“With more congested roadways, these increasingly deadly driving behaviors are having even more alarming impacts to lives and families. We must work to change that trend and remind and reeducate drivers that lives are in their hands when they sit behind the wheel, ”Compton added. “A moment’s distraction can have devastating consequences. Put your phone down, watch your speed and pay attention to what is happening on the roadway. ”

The turnpike plans an increased number of patrols and safety teams over the weekend, and Pennsylvania State Police, including Troop M which covers the Lehigh Valley, are planning holiday enforcement from Friday morning to Monday night.

“With Memorial Day weekend upon us and a surge in holiday traffic anticipated, we echo the reminder to motorists of the importance of safe driving habits,” state police Cpl. Matthew Johnston said in a news release. “Obeying the posted speed limits, allowing sufficient distance between other vehicles and a general respect for other motorists will ensure everyone reaches their destination safely.”

Travelers aren’t just getting behind the wheel. Analysts and experts are bracing for a surge in air travel during the coming months.

AAA expects more than 3 million people to fly during Memorial Day weekend compared to three years ago, when 3.22 million people caught a flight over the same time period.

The Transportation Security Administration is preparing for a surge in travelers, with summer passenger screening levels possibly setting records and hitting 3 million passengers on a single day. That applies to local airports, including Lehigh Valley International Airport, which expects a busy holiday weekend and a busy summer.

One new tool local travelers can use is checking the real-time and predicted wait times at the airport’s TSA checkpoint, via the new Passenger Predictability program. Times can be checked on the airport’s website here.

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Sarah Cassi may be reached at scassi@lehighvalleylive.com.

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