Preparing For Your Summer Road Trip: The Ultimate Guide

This summer road trip guide includes: 

  • How to respond during an unexpected emergency.
  • Driving tips that will help keep you and your family safe.
  • A comprehensive checklist for getting your vehicle prepared.
  • What to place in your emergency kit, including something we overlook.
  • Best times of the week to drive and the risks that come with summer travel.

Pack those bags, gather up the snacks, and grab a seat in the back of the station wagon. The quintessential American road trip remains a top choice for families this summer. A recent AAA Travel survey finds nearly 100 million Americans – four in 10 U.S. adults – are planning a family vacation this year. With regard to summer road trips specifically, two-thirds of all travelers (68 percent) say they will embark on a summer getaway. According to AAA, lower fuel prices this summer versus last year may encourage more families to hit the road.

“The great American road trip is still one of the best ways for families to relax and reconnect with one another,” said Stacey Barber, Executive Director, AAA Travel Information & Content. “This is quickly shaping up to be another busy year for family travelers, both on the roadways, as well as other popular travel destinations and attractions.”

Summer Road Trips: The Ultimate Guide

This comprehensive guide consists of three parts: getting your vehicle ready, what to pack, and how to stay safe while driving. We want you prepared for every mile of your summer road trip, and there are a number of factors to consider before taking off. If at any point you have questions while reading this guide, please reach out to us directly.

“Summer is supposed to be the most carefree time of the year, but unfortunately that’s not really true on the roads,” explained Maureen Vogel, Senior Manager of Public Relations, National Safety Council. “Over the summer months, we see more people on the roads driving longer distances, and increased traffic means increased crash risk.”

This comprehensive guide covers three important things to consider before a summer road trip: getting your car ready, what to pack, and how to stay safe.

Section #1: Preparing Your Vehicle Beforehand

Multi-Point Inspection

Have your oil changed and your tires rotated – even if it’s a little early, that’s okay. Doing so allows a trusted mechanic the chance to perform a proper multi-point inspection before your trip. Let them know you are traveling so they can do a comprehensive check of your vehicle’s major components and systems.

“If you’re a month or 2,000 miles away from your oil change due date, then definitely get an oil change if you plan to travel far,” said Vic Sias, Senior Head of Service Management, YourMechanic. “Make sure they do a thorough review of your fluids, battery, engine, and tires.”

“Most shops will check your tires over, measure your brake pads, and check all your fluid levels as part of a standard service,” explained Bob Cockerham, General Manager of REAL Volkswagen Parts. “Proper maintenance also reduces the odds of a sudden failure, which means you’re less likely to be inconvenienced by a car problem on your trip.”

When The Rubber Meets The Road

Tires are an “out of sight, out of mind” item but research suggests we should change them sooner than we think. Worn tires put you and other drivers at risk, especially during a summer road trip. Research from AAA finds that driving on even relatively worn tires at highway speeds, and on wet surfaces, can increase stopping distances by nearly 90 feet. That’s more than the length of an eighteen-wheeler.

“Tires should be checked every time you fill up. If your tire pressure is too low or too high, and it’s a hot day, you can have a problem at highway speeds,” Cockerham said. “On a hot summer day, tires can literally fall apart as you’re driving down the road. This can be very dangerous.”

“The summer heat is especially bad for tires. In the heat, asphalt temperature can top 140 degrees,” Sias added. “If tires are under inflated and get too hot, they’ll start peeling apart and shredding on the road.”

Have your tires replaced if necessary before embarking on a summer road trip.

Related: Keep your car running for the long haul with this comprehensive guide.

Staying Cool

Your car’s cooling system should be in tip-top shape before you leave. The cooling system contains vital components like the radiator, thermostat, and water pump, with a variety of hoses and valves. Engines typically run between 190 and 210 degrees Fahrenheit, with 240 degrees being the danger zone for overheating. When the summer sun sets in on a long trip, the engine is more prone to overheating. Sias says for this reason, your car’s road trip worthiness begins with the cooling system.

“On most summer road trips, you’re driving for three to four hours at a time, so that puts unusual pressure on the engine and coolant system,” he explained. “Especially in the summer heat, if the water pump fails, that spells disaster. The car will start losing coolant, overheat, and steam will start coming out of the engine.”

“Another one of the biggest issues we see with summer temperatures and vehicle failures are in the AC system,” Cockerham added. “People have a failing AC system, but don’t necessarily realize it because the problem started in the fall or winter.”

A telltale sign of a failing air conditioner is one of the easiest: it simply won’t blow cold air. AC systems, since they are pressurized, are completely sealed and must remain so in order to properly function. As the miles add up, the rubber O-rings on the high pressure lines can deteriorate. If this happens, it causes a leak whereby moisture enters the lines and creates an acidic environment when it mixes with the refrigerant. This is detrimental to the entire system and, as the leaking continues, it prevents your interior from getting cool.

“Air conditioners have a way of breaking down right when you need them most,” Sias said.

Having a multi-point inspection done beforehand will give you time to address any maintenance concerns.

Related: Buy a new car or fix your current one? Here is some practical advice.

Seasonal Woes

A YourMechanic study last year looked at the most common car repairs by season. The data was analyzed by comparing the total number of each quote YourMechanic offered for different repairs in 2017 by season. From there, seasonal percentages were derived to uncover the most heavily weighted quotes by season. The study ultimately found HVAC failures, broken cooling fans, and window lift motors are among the most common issues when the weather gets toasty. Timing chains are also more susceptible when the weather gets warmer.

“This is likely due to spring and summer being far more dry seasons, resulting in a lot more dust and grit getting into the oil that coats the timing chain,” YourMechanic writes in the study. “This dust and grit could potentially reduce the timing chain lifespan.”

Keep in mind, you may not necessarily be able to prevent these seasonal repairs. Sometimes, when something breaks on your car, it is what it is. Just address things as they come up. This way, your vehicle will be in good condition when you set out for that family road trip. And it never hurts to keep extra oil, windshield wiper fluid, and coolant in your trunk. Just in case.

Recap (Remember To “CHECK”)

  • Change your oil and rotate your tires.
  • Have a compete multi-point inspection done. 
  • Engine health starts with your car’s cooling system. 
  • Cover your bases by having an extra bottle of washer fluid.
  • Keep in mind certain repairs are more common in the summer.

The Big 8: Have A Trusted Mechanic Inspect These Things Beforehand

  1. Wipers
  2. All Major Fluids
  3. Exhaust System
  4. Cooling System
  5. Brake Pads & Rotors
  6. Tire Tread & Pressures
  7. Suspension & Steering
  8. Exterior Light Operation

Section #2: What To Pack

In a recent study conducted by Siegfried & Jensen, 62 percent said they are ready to handle an emergency on the road. The Utah-based law firm found a stark difference, however, between what respondents believe counts as “prepared” versus how prepared they actually are. A list of eight essential items was sourced from AAA, the Car Care Council, DMV.org, driving-tests.org, and the Washington State Department of Transportation. Respondents were asked what “recommended essentials” they keep in their cars. The results were not great.

“We were very surprised to find most Americans only have four out of the eight recommended essentials in their car,” said Ned Siegfried, President of Siegfried & Jensen. “This misplaced confidence suggests there isn’t enough being done to educate drivers about how to get their vehicles ready.”

“Every car should have an emergency kit, even if your car is brand new,” Vogel added. “The best car kits include flashers, jumper cables, orange cones, flashlights, blankets, and dry food such as granola bars.”

Don’t Shrug The Atlas

Just like Grandpa used to have, it’s best to keep a good old fashioned road atlas in the glove box. In today’s ever-connected world, it’s easy to rely strictly on smartphones for directions. While that may work for most places, you may encounter an area with no service; especially if your summer road trip takes you somewhere you have never been. Siegfried & Jensen’s survey found less than a quarter of Americans keep a paper map handy.

“In some of the more remote parts of the U.S., finding a satellite signal is never certain and your GPS is rendered useless,” Siegfried said. “Maps are more reliable and, unlike a cell battery, will never die on you.”

“Plan your route, know where you are going, and review the route before heading out,” added Public Information Officer Ian Hoey of the California Highway Patrol’s Office of Community Outreach and Media Relations. “This will help you not to rely solely on electronic navigation systems.”

Pack a road atlas for good measure if your summer road trip takes you off the beaten path.

Include The Games & The Grub

AAA recommends packing books and games for the kids and an extra pillow and blanket. Healthy snacks are a must, especially for those long summer road trips. We recommend cutting up fresh vegetables and fruit and placing them in a small cooler or Ziploc bag. Almonds, cashews, and other assorted nuts are perfect.

“Be sure to keep a case of bottled water and know the symptoms of dehydration,” Siegfried added.

Don’t Pack Your Ego

A recent survey from Esurance backs the findings of Siegfried & Jensen in showing overconfidence is hurting our driving habits. Esurance asked respondents to rate their driving skills on a scale of one to five, with one being the least safe and five being the best. Perhaps not surprisingly, 76 percent of respondents awarded themselves either four or five stars. However, when asked, 93 percent said they engaged in at least one unsafe driving behavior, while one in four admitted to engaging in numerous unsafe driving behaviors.

“Not only do they put themselves at risk, multi-tasking drivers increase the risk of injuring or killing their passengers, bicyclists, pedestrians, or innocent victims traveling in another vehicle,” Hoey said. “It is the responsibility of all of us who drive to help keep the roads safe.”

Recap (Remember The Four P’s)

  1. Plan your route.
  2. Pack a safety kit.
  3. Pile up the snacks.
  4. Put an atlas in your car.

The Big 8: Have These On Your Summer Road Trip

  1. Water
  2. Tool Kit
  3. Flashlight
  4. Spare Tire
  5. First Aid Kit
  6. Road Flares
  7. Jumper Cables
  8. Tire Changing Tools

Section #3: How To Stay Safe While Driving

After your car is in good working order and everything is packed, it’s time to hit the road. Few experiences are more enjoyable than a summer road trip, but remember to stay vigilant (and this section will help you). Summer poses a number of inherent risks for travelers; for example, July 4th is the most dangerous day to drive based on the number of injuries and fatalities that take place on that day alone.

“If you are traveling around a holiday, anticipate an increase in traffic, and be especially alert for impaired drivers,” Vogel said. “We might let our guards down a bit in the summer as we celebrate holidays and take vacations, but defensive driving is key.”

Best Time To Travel: Daylight Is Ideal

Congestion may be part of your summer road trip when going through a major city. Just go with it and try not to get anxious. You can travel at night to avoid daily commuters and rush hour traffic, however it’s not ideal.

“When we drive at night, we work against our Circadian rhythm and expose ourselves to a greater risk of fatigue,” Vogel said. “It’s best to drive during the day.”

“When it comes to traveling during the day versus the night, it is more of a personal preference; however, traveling at night will have its own challenges,” Hoey explained. “Reduced visibility, the potential for increased wildlife activity, fatigue, and the fact there will be less services available, including gas stations, restaurants, and tow services should you require them.”

The California Highway Patrol says driving at night can present a number of challenges.

Best Time To Travel: Weekend Versus During The Week

study last year from Avvo examined data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System for 2016 to see when crash-related fatalities were at their highest. The findings are useful when trying to determine when to begin your summer road trip. Based on the data, the most dangerous times to drive are the late afternoon and early evening: 6,201 accidents occurred between 4:00 p.m. and 6:59 p.m.; followed by 6,067 between 7:00 p.m. and 9:59 p.m. By contrast, the fewest fatalities (3,345) occurred during the morning hours between 7:00 a.m. and 9:59 a.m.

“We were surprised to see car crash deaths are over 85 percent higher during the after work rush hour between 4:00 p.m. and 6:59 p.m. than they are during the morning rush hour between 7:00 a.m. and 9:59 a.m.,” said Jeremy Reitman, Avvo’s Vice President of Organic Marketing.

Avvo’s study found that nearly 7,000 fatalities occurred on Saturdays in 2016, with Friday not far behind at 5,826 fatalities. The figures show the most dangerous time to travel is Saturday night after 10 p.m., but that risk extends into the early morning hours of Sunday, with 1:00 a.m. to 3:59 a.m. being equally as risky.

Be Weary of Weary Driving

According to the National Sleep Foundation, 60 percent of Americans have driven while drowsy and one-third have actually fallen asleep at the wheel. The foundation says after we are awake for 18 hours, it’s the equivalent of a .05 blood alcohol level (.08 is considered drunk). If we burn the candle at both ends and are awake for 24 hours – perhaps after a sleepless night – it’s like having a blood alcohol level of .10.

“A sleepy driver is a danger to everyone on the road,” Hoey said. “Pull over and rest when you start to become fatigued.”

Yawning, heavy eyes, and lane drifting are among the common symptoms of drowsy driving. Don’t risk it in an effort to squeeze out those last few miles. Rolling down the windows and blaring the radio are not effective strategies either. Find a place to stop and get some rest.

Every two minutes someone is injured in a drunk driving accident.

Drinking & Driving Don’t Mix

Mothers Against Drunk Driving notes that every two minutes someone is injured in an alcohol-related accident. Every 51 minutes, a person is killed, making drunk driving the primary cause of death on American roads. Current data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows almost 11,000 people died in accidents involving alcohol in 2017 and 2016. According to NHTSA, 37,133 people died in traffic crashes in 2017, and 29 percent of those killed, or 10,874, were due to drunk driving.

“After two years of alarming increases in drunk driving deaths in 2015 and 2016, the new data shows a very slight decrease – but that is not enough,” said Colleen Sheehey-Church, Immediate Past National President of MADD. “One death is too many, but almost 11,000 lives lost, two years in a row, is devastating.”

“The law and common sense makes it clear that driving any vehicle, including recreational vehicles, while under the influence of alcohol or drugs is a critical mistake,” Hoey said. “The law is even stricter for drivers under the age of 21 or on probation for a prior DUI conviction.”

Be aware of the risk as two in three will be impacted by drunk driving in their lifetime. When setting out on your summer road trip, don’t chance it. The vehicle is no place for a party – always travel with a clean and sober mind. Drunk driving accidents are 100 percent preventable as long was we chose to travel responsibly.

“Driving under the influence also includes drugs,” Hoey added. “You can be arrested for DUI cannabis – including edibles, concentrates, and other products – prescription drugs and even over-the-counter drugs if they impair your ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.”

“If you see someone driving erratically, do not hesitate to call the authorities once you can safely do so,” Vogel said.

First responders say to try and remain clam in the event of an emergency. Help is on the way.

Related: Keeping man’s best friend safe: the science behind pet safety in your car.

What To Do During An Emergency

Regardless of the emergency, find a clear place to pull off the road and dial 911. Relay everything necessary to the dispatcher. Always keep tabs on where you are exactly during your summer road trip. It will help the 911 operator if they have your current location, direction of travel, and the nearest cross streets if applicable. Explain, as best you can, the nature of the emergency, be it a crash, crime, fire, or medical event.

“Most importantly, try to remain calm,” Hoey said. “Help is on the way.”

Be Aware of Car Theft

Data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) shows vehicle thefts in the U.S. rose last year by more than four percent, according to preliminary 2017 records from the FBI. Car theft is largely a crime of opportunity. That said, don’t leave your keys or other valuables inside your vehicle to give thieves an incentive. The NICB finds, on every single day from January 1st, 2016, through December 31st, 2018, an average of 209 vehicles were stolen nationwide.

Why? Because drivers left their keys or fobs in their cars.

“We can’t stress enough the importance of locking your vehicle and taking the key or fob with you when you leave it,” said Joe Wehrle, NICB President and CEO. “Anti-theft technology works, but only if you use it.”

When you pull off the highway, lock you car and park it in a well-lit and secure area. Car thieves often go for the path of least resistance. Try to stop at modern rest areas and other busy locations where you and others would easily notice suspicious or strange activity. If you are stopping at night, keep your eyes peeled and use the restroom facilities as quickly as possible. If someone approaches you with a weapon and demands your vehicle, calmly give it to them, and call the police when they leave.

Always park your vehicle in a well-lit area.

Related: Car theft is on the rise and here is what you need to know.

Overall Best Practices For A Safe Summer Road Trip

Packing always takes longer than we think, and you many not exactly leave on time for your summer road trip. That’s okay. Don’t drive faster to try and make up for lost time; you only put yourself and your family at risk. Defensive driving is best; obey all posted speed limits, leave yourself “an out” in traffic (i.e. don’t follow too close), and don’t fall victim to road rage. Resist the urge to look at your phone, send a text message, or check social media. Distracted driving is dangerous and impartial when it comes to its victims.

“Anything that diverts the driver’s eyes or attention from the roadway, even for one or two seconds, could result in tragedy,” Hoey explained. “The bottom line, whatever the distraction, it’s not worth it!”

An observational study last year by the California Office of Traffic Safety on cell phone use found approximately 4.5 percent of drivers were seen using a cell phone, a nearly 27 percent increase from 2017. That figure is down from 2016, but the danger is ever-present. According to NHTSA, sending or reading a text takes roughly five seconds. At 55 mph, your vehicle will cover an entire football field by the time you look up again. In 2017, 3,166 people died in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers.

“Reckless and distracted driving is the number one killer of teens in America too,” Hoey continued. “Focus on the road ahead and get to where you are going safely.”

“Also, buckle up before you turn on the ignition, and make sure all passengers are as well,” Vogel said. “Driving defensively and wearing a seat belt are the most important things you can do to protect yourself.”

While summer getaways are always fun, never take your eyes off the road.

Recap (Remember The Six D’s)

  1. Daylight is best for traveling.
  2. Dial 911 during an emergency.
  3. Drinking and driving don’t mix.
  4. Drugs and driving don’t mix either.
  5. Drowsy driving is just as bad as both. 
  6. Distracted driving is not worth the risk.

The Big 8: If You Are Stopped By Law Enforcement

  1. Slow down when you see a patrol vehicle behind you displaying red lights.
  2. Pull your vehicle to the right and stop in a safe location.
  3. Place the vehicle in park.
  4. Lower your driver and passenger side windows and wait inside.
  5. If necessary, be willing to exit your vehicle.
  6. Otherwise, keep both hands on the steering wheel or where they are visible at all times.
  7. Wait for the officer to approach and listen to the officer’s instructions.
  8. If you are carrying a concealed weapon, use common sense and do not reach for it.

Putting It All Together

While there is a lot of useful and important information above, make sure to enjoy your summer road trip as well. Try not to stress too much – you don’t want to feel like taking a vacation from your vacation. Use this guide as you need to help you prepare. Happy trails . . . and if you take any good photos on your summer road trip, share them with us on Twitter.

Sources: AAA, Avvo, California Highway Patrol, Esurance, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Insurance Crime Bureau, National Safety Council, National Sleep Foundation, Siegfried & Jensen, YourMechanic.

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