How to survive the ‘perfect storm’ for motorists this Christmas

·6-min read
Motorways are expected to be busier than normal this Christmas - Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Motorways are expected to be busier than normal this Christmas - Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Thanks to the full gamut of strikes over the festive period, the lyrics to Chris Rea’s Driving Home for Christmas have never been more prescient. “Top to toe in tailbacks, oh I’ve got red lights all around...”

The AA’s gloomy prophecy for December 23 and 24 is that there will be 45 million cars on main roads, leading to widespread gridlock. Added to that is the fact this is the first Covid-free Christmas in three years, so more people are likely to travel.

Meanwhile, Border Force officers, rail workers and National Highway staff are all set to strike over the next week, leading the AA to issue an amber traffic alert and warn of a “perfect storm” for motorists.

An additional 600,000 to 900,000 passengers would normally travel by rail on the Friday before Christmas, when December 25 falls on a weekend. But RMT strikes have put paid to that.

Trains will be cancelled or severely disrupted from December 24 to 27 and, although there’s no scheduled strike on Friday 23, services are still expected to be impacted due to a huge increase in demand. Many of those extra passengers will be taking to the road.

“With all these factors coming together and the way Christmas falls, potentially it could be the biggest Christmas getaway ever,” Edmund King, president of the AA, told the Telegraph. “On a couple of the days you’ve got National Highways officials on strike and they look after the signs on the motorways. If you’re not having signs about delays and collisions, that could lead to more congestion.”

When faced with all this, Chris Rea’s tuneful mellow optimism might seem a little out of reach (especially if you have children, pets or relatives in tow). Here’s how to make it home not only safe and sound, but with presents wrapped and sanity intact.

Time your journey

The AA has issued an amber warning for December 23 and 24, meaning drivers should be braced for congestion and delays of over 90 minutes - Blitz Pictures / Alamy
The AA has issued an amber warning for December 23 and 24, meaning drivers should be braced for congestion and delays of over 90 minutes - Blitz Pictures / Alamy

If at all possible, drivers should travel earlier this week rather than waiting for the weekend frenzy.

“We’re expecting there to be 17 million journeys on Friday and Saturday, and the traffic forecast shows it will be at its worst between 10am-6pm on Friday and 10am-4pm on Saturday,” says Sean Sidley, AA roadside patrol man and AA’s patrol of the year. “Go as early as you can to try and avoid getting caught out.”

Even though traffic will be worse in the daytime on Friday 23, Sidley suggests leaving as long as possible for your journey rather than waiting to set off after the 6pm peak.

Unsurprisingly, he recommends the AA’s route planning app as the best way to plot your journey. It allows you to circumvent accidents, tolls or motorways and offers regular (if not up-to-the-second) traffic updates.

RAC offers a similar app and online route planner, but Simon Williams, an RAC spokesperson, suggests some “old-fashioned route planning” too. “Look at the map and see if there’s an alternative route you could take to avoid any likely pinch points.”

If you can’t travel earlier in the week, Williams suggests setting off early on Christmas morning. “You would have a reasonable chance of a good journey minus trucks and commuter traffic.”

Stock your car

Provided there’s space in the boot after you fill it with presents, pets and the Christmas turkey, there are some other essentials to stock up on for a long journey.

King suggests “water, high protein food or chocolate, warm clothes, coats and a hi-viz jacket” as well as a shovel, a thermos of tea, sturdy footwear, a blanket and a torch with spare batteries in case of breakdowns. A portable charger is another essential.

It is equally important to check your car before you set off, including headlights, fuel levels or EV charge level and tyre tread depth, which should be at least 3mm in winter.

Checking your seat position or “driving ergonomics” can also be beneficial ahead of a long drive. The RAC’s guide to driving position says your hips should be as high as your knees, the head restraint should be parallel with the top of your head and, if possible, your seat’s lumbar support should comfortably fill the arch of your back to minimise lower back pain.

How to keep kids (and adults) entertained

Passing the time by watching programmes on a tablet isn’t the end of the world - Science Photo Library
Passing the time by watching programmes on a tablet isn’t the end of the world - Science Photo Library

According to Georgina Durrant, author of 100 Ways Your Child Can Learn Through Play, now’s not the time to feel guilty about screens if you have children – an iPad or tablet will come in very handy indeed.

“A little bit of screen time for the passengers stuck in a traffic jam isn’t going to do anyone any harm,” she says. “Make sure you’ve downloaded some programmes onto the tablet device beforehand so you don’t have to rely on non-existent Wi-Fi.

“Otherwise, audiobooks are a fantastic way to keep kids (and adults) entertained on long journeys; there are a few subscription services, or you can borrow them from the local library.”

There are also plenty of great analogue games (not just endless rounds of I-Spy). “Our favourite is Number Plate Maths,” says Durrant. “All you have to do is read the numbers on the registration plate of a car and add them together. See who can find a car with a plate that makes the biggest number. We also like “Guess The Song” where you play the first few seconds of a song and the passengers have to guess which it is.

“I wouldn’t recommend any toys that are small or fiddly; the last thing you want to be doing is trying to find a lost part stuck behind a car seat,” she says. “There are some great organisers that clip onto the back of the front seats for kids to keep their toys in, which can help with this.” Failing everything else, a stash of snacks, sweets and chocolate will solve both child and adult tantrums.

How to avoid roadworks

900 miles of roadworks are being removed by National Highways to ease congestion over Christmas, meaning 98 per cent of motorways and major A-roads will be roadwork free from Tuesday December 20 to Tuesday January 3. Sidley says this will make a “huge difference,” as the contraflow of drivers and reduced speed limits during roadworks contribute to delays.

However, transport analytics company Inrix still says the average journey time will be 14 per cent longer. It’s possible to plan your journey around specific traffic pinch points, though; stretches of the M25, the M60 near Manchester, the M6 in the North West and the M40 in Oxfordshire have been tipped as top culprits for traffic jams. National Highways’ Traffic England website is the most reliable source for live updates.