Your cell phone is ringing, your dog is barking and the piping-hot pie you just baked is close to sliding off the passenger side seat.
Those are just some of the distractions that could cause driving stress—and even a car crash—during the winter holiday season, says driving expert Wyatt Knox, special projects director for Team O’Neil Rally School in Dalton, New Hampshire.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to lessen your chance of having a crash during the holidays and to ensure a smooth, stress-free trip for the entire family.
1. Have a professional determine whether your car is road-ready.
Choose a reputable service facility to have your car’s brakes, fluids, lights, and systems checked, says longtime auto consultant Ed Kriston of Westminster, Maryland. “You may be charged a few dollars more than you would at a rapid service facility, but you’re paying for safety,” he explains. Crowd-sourced sites such as Yelp and AngiesList are valuable resources to find reliable auto experts, notes Edmunds.com.
Before you leave for your holiday trip, be sure to check your headlights, hazard lights, and brake lights yourself, as they may burn out unexpectedly, warns Kriston. That could save you a ticket—or worse.
2. Familiarize yourself with the vehicle.
There’s an old joke that a car’s owner’s manual is one of the least read books in the world. Whether you’re driving your own car, a rental, or a loaner, familiarize yourself with the owner’s manual and bring it with you just in case. If you’re borrowing a car and it isn’t in there, ask the rental company or the car’s owner for it.
You never know if you’ll need to decipher a signal or locate a system that you haven’t encountered in the past. And owner’s manuals also give instructions on everything from changing a tire to securing infant car seats, which could come in handy.
And, if you are borrowing a car, spend time reviewing the controls and systems, recommends Knox. “Some of the new systems are intuitive, but others are very difficult to use and understand,” says Knox. “You don’t want to just hop in, drive away and try to adjust controls when you’re traveling 60 mph down the highway.”
3. Check your car insurance.
Review your car insurance before your trip. If a mishap occurs, you’ll want to know that you’re covered. Having towing insurance, for example, could be extremely helpful if you’re in an accident. It also helps to know ahead of time whether your insurance will cover a rental car big enough to accommodate your family. If it doesn’t, you can make adjustments to your policy before your trip, just in case the unexpected occurs.
4. Pack an empty gas can.
No one plans to run out of gas, but if you do, having a gas can will at least save you time waiting for assistance. Never carry gasoline in the car, of course, just an empty gas can to retrieve gas in an emergency.
5. Plan for unfamiliar weather.
Check the weather forecast before you leave and make sure you have packed appropriate gear, including a snow brush, a snow shovel, and sand or kitty litter (to improve traction on ice), suggests safety and security expert Alyse Ainsworth of ASecureLife.com of Salt Lake City.
A blanket, bottled water, an extra cell phone charger, flares, and a jack that you can actually operate are also essential supplies, says Kriston. Auto supply and big-box stores have ready-made kits that you can purchase.
6. Prepare for a car seat emergency.
Unless you plan to bring or rent one, your rental won’t come with a car seat. And even if you start out with one, your child’s or grandchild’s car seat may become damaged or broken during the trip. You probably don’t want to lug an awkward and heavy second car seat around, especially if you need to make room in your car for food and presents. Consider carrying a smaller alternative, such as an inflatable car seat or booster seat.
7. Print out vital numbers.
If you belong to a roadside assistance service, make sure you have your membership card and the contact number with you when you travel, suggests Kriston. You can save the important details on your phone, but you should also write them down on a piece of paper that you keep in your glove box, just in case your phone runs low on battery power. You don’t want to waste your phone’s power searching for information when you need to make the call for help.
8. Carry paper maps and directions.
It’s easy to rely on your GPS, but it’s not infallible. What if you haven’t updated it recently? What if it can’t find a signal? Or, what if it simply breaks down? Pack maps and written directions just in case they are needed, advises Kriston.
9. Store presents in the trunk.
The holidays may be a time for good will towards men, but that doesn’t mean would-be thieves aren’t still on the prowl. Store your presents in your trunk, even if your drive isn’t particularly long. After all, you may need to pull over to grab something from the grocery store or to use the restroom. Don’t let yourself become the victim of a holiday Grinch.
10. Don’t overload your vehicle.
If you pack your vehicle to the brink, you are asking for trouble, says RV industry expert Mark Koep, founder of CampgroundViews.com. Look at the vehicle’s owner’s manual to determine how much weight you can carry safely . Overloading your car can cause many safety issues including tire ruptures, he says. Furthermore, carrying an extra 100 pounds in your car could reduce your fuel economy by about one percent.
11. Leave early.
This one sounds like a no-brainer, but many of us are guilty of leaving for destinations—whether across town or across the country—at the last minute. Leaving early means that you won’t be tempted to drive aggressively or over the speed limit, especially if you encounter inclement weather or traffic congestion.
Knox adds that it’s important to let hosts and others know that you will arrive as soon as safely feasible, preferably before your leave your home. “Yes, you have somewhere to be, but you don’t need to constantly text to update them,” he says. “If you feel you must update your hosts, call, text or email from a rest stop.”
12. Insist everyone buckle up.
Yes, that means everyone—including the family pet. Not only are pets distracting, but in an accident, unrestrained animals can seriously injure or even kill other auto occupants and can easily themselves be injured or killed. A report by AAA and Kurgo Pet Safety notes: “An unrestrained 10-pound dog in a crash at 50 mph will exert roughly 500 pounds of force, while an unrestrained 80-pound dog in a crash at only 30 mph will exert approximately 2,400 pounds of force.”
Spend the extra time and energy to properly secure your dog, cat, gerbil or other animals in the back seat of your car. Your car’s Lower Anchor and Tether for Children (LATCH) system, which is used to secure infant and child car seats, can be used for pet carriers as well. If you are not familiar with the system, check your owner’s manual for where to find and how to use them.
Keep Reading: Keep Your Pet Safe in Your Car
13. Remember stopping is more difficult than accelerating.
Some drivers are fooled into thinking that because they can quickly go from zero to 50 mph up snow-covered roads, they can stop just as effortlessly. That’s not true, says Knox. “It might take you twice as long to stop as it does to accelerate,” he explains, noting that smooth, even stopping can help you maintain control of your car.
14. Give yourself an escape hatch.
Even if the road you’re on is only somewhat congested, don’t pull right up to the bumper of the car in front of you. Leave at least three seconds of space between you and the car ahead of you, just in case you need to abruptly stop or maneuver into another lane.
And if you’re driving down deserted, rural roads, consider driving more toward the center of those roads, advises Knox. That way, if a moose, deer or other danger does appear, you’ll have an opportunity to quickly pull to either side of the road to avoid a crash.
15. Don’t be a road warrior.
For long trips, plan to alternate between drivers or stop to rest in a hotel, recommends Ainsworth. “If you haven’t planned to spend the night somewhere and you feel drowsy, then pull over in a well-lit area such as a fast food restaurant or gas station to plan your next steps,” she says. “If you must sleep in your car, then find the nearest campground or state park where you can pay to safely stay for the night.” Due to safety concerns, don’t sleep at a rest stop, she advises.
Driving during the winter can be problematic—or worse, downright dangerous. But, with planning and preparation and by following the rules of the road, you can help ensure that you’ll arrive at your destination safely and smoothly.