In the United States one defining aspect of the national culture is the love of cars and the road we travel for our daily lives and to distant points beyond our regular commuting.
The Bureau of Transportation Statistics offers a glimpse into long-distance summer travel defined as greater than 50 miles. The average American travels 284 miles one way to a summer destination.
Our car culture dominates, with nine out of ten trips occurring in a personal vehicle. With so much to see and do across our nation, 97 percent of our vacations occur in the U.S.
Safe Travel Planning
Even before you set out on your journey, you will want to make sure that your car has been serviced for a fresh oil change, fluid level and tire checks, and any needed updates from manufacturer recalls. Also check your trunk for safety gear, including a spare tire, a jack, flares and jumper cables. You may want to update your roadside assistance package through your insurance company or AAA. If you are taking a family winter trip, you will also want to stash away winter survival gear — including blankets, extra coats and gloves, water and non-perishable foods — in case you get stuck in bad weather.
Take the time to plan your family’s safe travel. Arrange to travel with a cell phone and charger. This provides you access to services such as calling ahead for hotel reservations, but more importantly gives you the ability to call 911 for police or emergency services anywhere you travel in the U.S.
If you have no cell phone or if there is no coverage, you will need a Call Police-Send Help sign to put in your window so that you can let others know you need help without having to stop. When stopping to explore, be sure to lock your car doors, and lock valuables in the trunk or take them with you. We all want to be good Samaritans, but don’t stop for strangers. If you think someone is in trouble, call 911 and notify properly equipped emergency personnel of the situation. Your safety and that of your family must always come first when traveling. Always park in well-lit, heavily traveled areas.
Traveling safely means keeping distractions to a minimum and your attention on the road ahead. As you drive, keep your gaze up and look several cars ahead for changing traffic situations. Avoid slamming on the breaks or sudden shifts in steering to maintain vehicle control. To avoid distractions, put away your phone and appoint a passenger in charge of in-vehicle technology. Minimize distractions from the kids by establishing behavioral ground rules. Keep calm and wait until you can stop safely to address any major behaviors.
As you travel, make regular stops to stretch your legs, take bathroom breaks and have something to drink and eat. Pack bottles of water and small, nutritious snacks. Also load into the front of the car small bags of diversionary activities such as books, movies and car-appropriate games. It’s fun for everyone in the car to play games such as I-Spy and the License Plate game. Your family will be happier and enjoy the trip more if there is plenty to occupy their time if not driving.
It’s important to remember that the driver also gets fatigued and, if at all possible, trade off drivers every couple of hours. You must be alert to your surroundings, including motorcyclists — and even pedestrians — as you travel through communities. Speed limits vary extensively per state and community, so it is imperative to watch for road signs and remain at or under the posted limit. Nothing ruins a vacation faster than a speeding ticket.
When you are traveling with your family, take extra measures. Never leave children unattended in your car. In the summer, cars can become intolerably hot, and, in winter, freezing cold. Since 1998, there have been on average 37 child heatstroke deaths from being locked in a car. Most victims were under the age of two and were inadvertently left in a car by a parent or caregiver. Equally important, unattended children can be targeted for abduction or be the unintended rider in a stolen car.
Know what the seatbelt and car seat/booster laws are from state to state as you travel. Parent Central (https://www.safercar.gov/parents/index.htm) offers good general guidelines. The Governors Highway Safety Association (http://www.ghsa.org) maintains an easy-to-follow listing of states and their child car restraint laws.
Start by setting a good example and ensure that everyone utilizes a seatbelt or car safety seat every time the car is started and in motion. The safest place in the car for children 13 and under is restrained in the back seat. Check the websites above or your car manual regarding finding and installing the correct, age-appropriate car seat.
Dr. Elizabeth Gephart, DNP, is a board-certified PNP practicing in Decatur, IL, at Crossing Healthcare and Millikin University.