As winter winds down and spring blooms appear, it’s time to plan for your next big adventure, a summer road trip.
But before heading down Route 66 or the Pacific Coast Highway, properly prep for the journey. After all, you’re joining hundreds of millions of Americans on the road. Vacationers take 91% of summer trips, beginning the Thursday before Memorial Day and ending the Wednesday after Labor Day, by car. In 2022, studies indicated that 39.2 million people would travel 50 miles or more on Memorial Day weekend alone.
So it makes sense that car accidents are a leading cause of traveler deaths. Even if you’re not in an accident, you could wind up stranded without the proper preparation.
To arrive at your destinations safely, learn what you need to do in advance and how to approach your road trip with safety in mind.
Table of Contents
Before You Head Out
Use these tips to prepare, including days to avoid driving, systems to test and maintenance to perform, and what should be in your roadside emergency kit.
1. Pick the Best Dates To Drive
Unfortunately, car travel has the highest fatality rate of all major transportation modes. Holidays often lead to drinking, contributing to crashes and heavy road traffic. Therefore, the most dangerous times to be on the road between April and August include:
- Memorial Day weekend (Begins 6:00 p.m., Friday before Memorial Day, ends 11:59 p.m., Memorial Day)
- Independence Day (Begins 6:00 p.m. Friday before July 4; ends 11:59 p.m., Independence Day)
- Labor Day weekend (Begins: 6:00 p.m., Friday, before labor day, ends 11:59 p.m., Labor Day)
In fact, deaths have been rising for the past few years, particularly on Labor Day and Independence Day. While the July 4 holiday sees around one-third of traffic fatalities resulting from drinking alcohol, overall, the deadliest months are July and August, followed by June.
2. Test the Systems
Ensure repairs are not needed before you pull out of your driveway to spare yourself getting stranded and an unexpected layover at a mechanic’s shop. Summer’s heat can require a closer eye on some systems, too:
- Tires: Check all four tires plus the spare for pressure; underinflated tires and road heat could cause your tires to blow out. Also, examine tread depth (should be 2/32 of an inch or greater) and any damage or tire conditions such as cuts, punctures, scrapes, cracks, bulges, or bumps. Uneven wear across the tires’ tread indicates the need for rotation or alignment.
- Battery: Heat can take more out of your battery. Ask a mechanic to check your battery and charging system and make any necessary repairs or replacements.
- Lights: Make sure all lights on your vehicle work, including headlights, brake lights, emergency flashers, turn signals, and your car’s interior lights.
- Wiper Blades: Summer heat can degrade wiper rubber. Blades may need to be replaced if you find signs of wear and tear or if the wipers do not work correctly (for example, streaking instead of wiping).
- Brakes: Ask a mechanic to ensure all brake system parts are in good condition, as summer heat stresses and strains brake components.
- A/C: Your A/C works harder in summer, so check the performance before hitting the road.
3. Perform Routine Maintenance
Before motoring down the road, do any routine maintenance you’ve postponed. For example:
Check the belts and hoses: High summer temperatures degrade rubber belts and hoses more quickly. Replace any with bulges, blisters, cracks, or cuts in rubber, and ensure connections are secure.
Refresh fluids: Make sure brake, transmission, steering, coolant, and windshield washer fluid levels are full.
Secure floor mats: Use retention clips to secure your floor mats, as loose or improper installation could increase crash risks due to interfering with the brake or gas pedals.
4. Pack a Roadside Emergency Kit
Even if you did your best to prep your car for the road, accidents and breakdowns happen. Pack a roadside emergency kit so you’re ready to be stuck on the side of the road in the summer heat. Here are the things you absolutely must bring:
- Water for everyone, including pets.
- Cell phone and full portable charger (if your phone and car are dead)
- First-aid kit with any required medications
- Flashlight and extra flashlight batteries
- Nonperishable food such as nuts and bars
- Emergency blankets and clothing
- Extra water for your car’s radiator, which uses more in hot water or when climbing uphill
Also, have these items on hand to repair your car if it breaks down:
- Jumper cables
- Tire pressure gauge
- Jack for changing a tire
- Work gloves
- Repair tools
- Duct tape
5. Inform at Least One Trusted Individual of Your Detailed Trip Plans
Consider letting someone know your final destination and route, along with when you think you’ll arrive. If you do not show up or get stuck along the way, your contact can send help along your shared route. If you’re delayed in any way or involved in an emergency situation, tell your contact by phone, text, or instant message.
On the Road
Okay, you’ve downloaded your best-ever road trip playlist. Anything else? Here are must-do and do not-forget tips to help you reach your destination without stress and unexpected expense.
1. Make Sure You’re Alert and Undistracted
Distracted drivers cannot respond as quickly to changes in traffic conditions, may miss safety hazards, and cannot respond as well to other, less-careful drivers, animals, or surprises.
Do not text, eat, or use your phone to navigate while driving. Some of these actions may even be illegal, depending on the state you’re motoring through. You can ask your passenger to help by acting as a co-pilot regarding routes or even taking the wheel for a while as you nap.
It’s essential to be realistic about how many hours you can drive daily. Around 100,000 police-reported crashes annually result from driver fatigue.
Stop every two hours or 100 miles to rest and stretch. Do not drive if you’ve been awake for more than 16 hours, and travel when you’re normally awake. Do not pull all-nighters or force yourself onto the road at 4 a.m., even if you’ve fallen behind on the trip.
2. Dress To Drive
Comfortable clothing and appropriate footwear make driving less stressful and safer. Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from glare and fatigue. A wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen can help protect you if you do break down and have to wait for a tow truck.
Wear shoes that allow you to feel the pedal and will not slip off. For example, wedge heels may decrease your foot’s sensitivity, and flip-flops could slip off.
3. Stay Hydrated and Cool
If exterior temps are in the 70s, a parked car’s interior temperatures can reach dangerous or deadly levels for children and pets, even if the windows are cracked. This particularly true in Sun Belt states can get brutally hot. For example, in Arizona, outdoor temperatures can easily reach 100 or higher every day and into night hours.
Children’s body temperature rises faster than adults’. More than 900 children died from heatstroke after being left or trapped in a hot car since 1998. If you break down, never leave a child alone, and pay close attention to the heat.
Pack an ice-filled cooler with extra water for everyone on the trip, including pets, and chug H2O whenever possible (even if that means more bathroom breaks).
4. Stay Well-Fueled and Gas-Efficient
Keep your fuel tank at three-quarters full throughout your journey to avoid running out of gas in a remote or hazardous location.
In addition, conserve fuel economy by only running your A/C on the highway and keeping your windows closed. Air conditioning eats into your fuel efficiency. At slower speeds, roll down windows to avoid A/C use.
5. Drive During Safer Hours and in Good Conditions
Think carefully about the time of day you’ll hit the road. Between 8 p.m. and 11:59 p.m. during late-summer months is when most fatal crashes occur. Nonfatal crashes tend to occur between noon to 3:59 p.m. in early summer.
Weekends see more accidents, particularly on Saturday evening through early Sunday morning. Fewer fatal crashes generally occur on early weekday mornings, before noon.
Research weather forecasts along the route, or even add your trip stops to your phone’s weather app for real-time information. Staying aware of upcoming weather can help you pack suitable clothing and avoid dust storms, fog, wildfires, and other road hazards. Weather can change dramatically as you travel across states. If your road trip is delayed due to weather, inform your emergency contact.
6. Know Where You’re Going
Try not to detour (too much) from the planned route or timing you shared with a friend. Printing paper maps and directions is wise, as GPS and cell service could vanish in remote areas and along mountain passes.
Consider mapping out charging stations along your route if driving a hybrid vehicle—and keep your gas tank filled to help support dry stretches where no charging is available.
Get familiar with the natural disasters that could happen at your final destination, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with those disasters. For example, if you visit a place regularly experiencing monsoons, hurricanes, or earthquakes, research local resources in advance. Some destinations may have an emergency alert system that sends texts on next steps.
Back at Home
After you’ve put hundreds or thousands of miles on the odometer and driven in varying weather conditions, perform a little routine maintenance and test your auto’s systems again. Summer’s heat and long distances can stress your car’s battery, tires, hoses, and more. In addition, replenish supplies if you’ve depleted your first-aid or emergency kit in any way. After all, Thanksgiving weekend is not far off.