The holiday season is a time to reflect on family, good fortune and unity. But a recent study by insuranceQuotes serves to remind us that holiday revelry and merriment can blind us to some of the season’s most dangerous and ubiquitous hazards.
Last November, Princeton Survey Research Associates International (PSRAI) polled 1,000 American adults who were asked to recount the frequency of certain holiday hazards, including injuries to houseguests, weather-related driving accidents and fires caused by everything from cooking mistakes to misadventures with decorations.
The findings were remarkable, and it’s important to keep them in mind when considering insurance to make sure any holiday mishaps are covered.
RELATED: Best and Worst Holiday Driving Days
For instance, as online shopping continues to grow in popularity, so do the ambitions of would-be thieves looking to swipe packages from porches and mailboxes. According to the study, 23 million Americans have had packages stolen from their homes before they could open them.
Injuries and property damage can also result from holiday carelessness. According to the insuranceQuotes study, 7 million Americans have had a guest injured in their home, 16 million Americans have experienced a house fire due to cooking accidents, and 2 million Americans have experienced fires caused by Christmas trees and other decorations.
Holiday travel — combined with the threat of winter weather — is also potentially perilous. According to the study, 52 million Americans have gotten into a car accident because of snow, ice or rain. Moreover, 30 million have gotten into an accident because of heavy traffic, 21 million because they were speeding and 5 million because they drank alcohol before getting behind the wheel.
But experts and analysts are quick to point out that with the right amount of preparation, precaution and awareness, holiday hazards can be avoided.
“Hosting the holidays can be stressful, but hosting hazards could be a game-ender,” says Allstate agency owner Frank Torres. “Fortunately, there are ways to be proactive this season.”
Tips for thwarting thefts this holiday season
Shopping online is no longer a fringe option reserved for the tech-savvy. According to a June 2016 Fortune.com survey, shoppers now make 51 percent of their purchases online (up from 48 percent in 2015, and 47 percent in 2014).
While this has made the shopping experience more convenient for many Americans, it has also increased the threat of thieves pilfering packages off porches. And according to the insuranceQuotes study, 23 million Americans have been victims of this crime.
What’s more, consumers don’t need to shop online to become targets for seasonal thieves. Ryland Madison, director of marketing for the home automation and security firm Cox Homelife, says an estimated 1 in every 36 homes in the U.S. were burglarized in 2014, with nearly 400,000 burglaries occurring in the holiday months of November and December.
“The holidays are a fun, festive time to celebrate with friends and family. Unfortunately they are also a busy time for criminals,” Madison says. “Homes and porches are filled with presents or left empty due to holiday travel. These become prime targets for theft.”
Despite this threat consumers can take certain steps to make sure their homes and possessions are secure.
For instance, the best way to ensure your packages are not stolen from your front porch is to have them held at the local post office or private delivery facility, such as UPS or FedEx, says Sarah Brown, a home safety and security expert for SafeWise.com.
“Although this option is not always the most convenient, it ensures your package is in good hands,” Brown says. “And if you have several packages coming throughout the season and don't have the time to pick up every single one, installing an outdoor security camera can offer an added layer of protection to your front porch. Often times thieves live nearby, and catching them on camera will more likely help you retrieve anything that’s stolen.”
If you plan on being out of town, Madison suggests having a friend or neighbor collect mail while you’re away. What’s more, if you know you’re going to be gone for long periods of time during the holiday season, have your packages delivered to your neighbor’s house (with his or her permission, of course).
“Also stop your newspaper or magazine deliveries for the time,” Madison says. “And while you’re at it, ask a neighbor to keep an eye out for suspicious activity around your home.”
Don't fan the flames of Christmas fires
Amidst all the frenzy of holiday frivolity, homeowners can often neglect some of the most basic rules of home safety, leading to property damage and injuries that are otherwise preventable.
For instance, according to the insuranceQuotes study, 16 million Americans have experienced a house fire due to a fryer or cooking accident, and 2 million have had fires caused by Christmas trees and other decorations.
“Half of all house fires originate in the kitchen, regardless of the time of year,” Brown says. “And since the kitchen is producing an excess amount of food during the holidays, it is especially important to keep an eye on your oven and keep combustible items away from the stove.”
The increased risk of fires during the holidays is not just anecdotal. Scott Humphrey, second vice president of risk control for Travelers, says homeowners file more claims for fire damage during this time of year than any other.
“Our claim data also shows that fire is one of the costliest claims,” Humphrey says. “If fire results in a total loss, it’s important that homeowners are insured for the total cost to rebuild, not just the market value of the home. Homeowners should be sure to review this point with their insurance agent or carrier.”
Hopefully you’ll never have to worry about filing a claim. Here are some tips to help you prevent fanning the flames of fire risk:
• Dangerous deep fryers. While experts agree that it’s objectively safer to deep fry your turkey outside, they also say holiday chefs should make sure it’s set up on level ground at least 30 feet away from your home, trees or any other flammable objects.
“Believe it or not, dry leaves on the ground can serve as natural lighter fluid if there’s a mishap, so make sure to rake beforehand,” says Peter Duncanson, director of system development with the disaster restoration company ServiceMaster Restore.
• Electricity is also a major cause of incendiary disasters. Humphrey says one of the main causes of fires this time of year result from electrical hazards like holiday lights, appliances or other devices that overload an extension cord or structural wiring in the home.
“It is especially important to inspect your strands of lights for frayed cords and cracked lamps before stringing them up,” Humphrey says. “Also, turn off your lights when you go out for the evening or when you go to bed so you don't wake up or come home to a fire.”
• Use candles with caution. Despite adding a warm and inviting touch to your holiday tablescape, candles can be as damaging as they are delightful, and Bud Summers, vice president of operations for the property restoration company PuroClean, suggests homeowners proceed with extreme caution when considering the placement of their holiday candles.
“Avoid setting them near curtains, towels, or anywhere they may be knocked over or forgotten about,” Summers says. “Make sure to leave approximately one foot of space between your burning candle and anything else. Be sure that the candle has a stable base and always extinguish the flame before leaving the house or room, or going to bed. When guests leave, designate someone to walk through each room to make sure candles are blown out.”
• Care for the Christmas tree. When maintained properly, the only harm caused by a Christmas tree is the mess of fallen needles it inevitably leaves behind. But if it’s neglected you could find yourself with a significant fire hazard perched in the middle of your living room.
“Real Christmas trees are more likely to start a fire than artificial ones, especially over time as the tree tends to dry out. And it only takes 30 seconds for a dry tree to engulf a room when a fire is ignited,” Summers says. “If you choose to go the natural route, making sure to keep the tree moist and full of water will significantly decrease your chances of unintentional fire.”
Travel without tragedy this holiday
Even under ideal circumstances driving presents a long list of risks and hazards. Add winter weather, holiday traffic and seasonal parties to the mix, and you’ve got a potential recipe for disaster.
According to the insuranceQuotes study, 52 million Americans have gotten into a car accident because of snow, ice or rain. Moreover, 30 million have gotten into an accident because of heavy traffic, 21 million because they were speeding, and 5 million because they drank alcohol before getting behind the wheel.
Nicole Firebaugh, manager at the Illinois-based Preventative Maintenance Repair shop, says the holidays are a great time to take stock of your vehicle’s performance and make important repairs before hitting the road.
“One major step to avoid hazards is to have your car checked by your mechanic ahead of time if you plan to travel,” Firebaugh says. “Take your car to a mechanic a week beforehand, have them find an issue, and repair it before you leave. That’s a lot better than discovering a major problem while you’re on the road.”
RELATED: 6 Tips for Safe Holiday Driving
Dave Delaney, chief marketing officer for the trucking insurance company Owner Operator Direct, says drivers should also pay particular attention to the risks posed by other drivers.
In addition to the increased prevalence of drunk driving during the holidays, Delaney says it's also important for drivers to recognize that there are high numbers of out-of-town visitors on the road in any given location during the holidays, and these visitors are “way more likely” to be distracted drivers.
“They are unfamiliar with where they are, and they might be more concerned with finding a street or an exit than they are with safe driving,” Delaney says. “We encourage our policyholders to keep a safe following distance from drivers who don't seem to know where they are going, especially if the vehicle makes sudden moves and stops or if the driver is on a cell phone or attempting to read a map or directions.”
What’s more, Delaney encourages drivers to familiarize themselves with their routes in advance and rely less on GPS systems that might force you to make quick-decision maneuvers that could cause trouble.
“With bad weather on the road, leave early to give yourself some extra time to reach your planned destination,” Delaney says. “If the weather is bad, then the obvious decision is to not drive. But if you must, your best defense is to slow down, and keep time and space around your vehicle.”