The UK’s roads are expected to be much quieter this Christmas, with coronavirus limiting drivers’ festive movements. That’s the conclusion of a study by the AA, which predicts the five-day break in Covid-19 measures will see around half as much traffic as an ordinary Christmas.

The motoring organisation’s survey of around 16,500 drivers found just under a quarter (24 percent) were planning to hit the road over the Christmas period. Assuming the AA’s respondents were a representative cross-section of society as a whole, that could mean 7.9 million motorists are planning trips by road this year.

But although that sounds like a huge number, it’s actually fairly low compared with last Christmas, before the coronavirus pandemic struck the UK. A year ago, 17 million motorists were planning to drive to visit friends and relatives over Christmas.

Woman puts Christmas gifts in car boot parked near shops

This year, however, Christmas will look very different, with coronavirus restrictions in place despite a five-day relaxation in the rules between December 23 and 27. Even during that period, though, just three households will be allowed to mix indoors, meaning some families will not be able to get all their loved ones together for Christmas.

What with those restrictions and fears around the health of vulnerable people, the AA’s research found almost half (46 percent) of respondents said they were not planning to travel by road this year. But 29 percent said they were undecided, with some perhaps waiting on any changes to the ‘tier system’ of restrictions in place across the country.

Young couple securing Christmas tree to roof of car

For those who will be driving, Christmas Eve is set to be the busiest day overall, with 48 percent of those planning a trip using the UK’s main roads and motorways. Of these, 28 percent will be visiting family and friends. But Saturday, December 19 is set to be the busiest day for shopping traffic, with an estimated fifth of drivers hitting the high street. The AA says hotspots are more likely to form around shopping centres close to motorways, such as the M5 for Cribbs Causeway in Bristol, but cancelled Christmas markets and restrictions on pubs and bars could mean less traffic in towns and city centres.

“The question will be ‘should I stay, or should I go?’ as families weigh up Christmas over Covid,” said AA president Edmund King. “Two-fifths of drivers who had already cancelled travel plans may still be wary of risk to their loved ones, or unable to choose who to include in their small Christmas bubble.

“With a review of tiers due on December 16, some could leave it late to make their final decision. But the 28 percent who felt it’s even more important to share the season with friends and family this year, are likely to embrace the ‘gift’ of some restrictions being lifted.

“With tier restrictions in place, many may opt to stay local, so we’d like to see councils remove as many roadworks as possible to help ease the flow of local traffic. We welcome efforts by Highways England to remove some 750 miles of roadworks on main roads and motorways.

“On balance, despite the reduced use of public transport and the five days of festive freedom, we don’t predict a total free for all on the roads… more ‘driving home for Christmas’ than ‘road to hell’ as Chris Rea sang.”

Car driving on snow covered road in Cambridge England