Tis the season for holiday travel! Thanksgiving is almost upon us, and that means a road trip to visit family and enjoy some great food. Shortly after will be Christmas and New Years, which will round out the holiday travel season. This stretch of five weeks is the most heavily traveled time of year for Americans. In 2013, 94.5 million people traveled during the year end holiday season. An astonishing 85.8 million, or 91 percent, of these traveled by automobile. With the lowest gas prices our nation has seen in four years, this number is only going to increase this year. When you couple that statistic with the record cold and snowfall expected this year (and already being experienced in many places), you can see why vehicle safety needs to be the first item on your holiday travel checklist.
First things first, check the tires. Having too low of tire tread can easily spell disaster on snowy, or icy, roads. Insert a penny into the tread of your tire that looks the lowest. If president Lincoln's head is completely covered, you've got at least 50 percent of the tread left, and will be reasonably safe for traveling. Check the air pressure. Driving with under-inflated tires in snowy conditions, effectively does the same thing that having too-low of tire tread does- it makes that tire unsafe to drive on. Not to mention the lower the pressure in your tires gets, the harder it is for the engine to move the vehicle. It can cost you a lot more in fuel mileage than you realize. Per the EPA, properly inflated tires can improve fuel efficiency by 3.3 percent, translating to 8-9 cents a gallon at the gas station.
The next item is to check the lights. This one is pretty simple and straight forward. Have someone help you to make it a little easier, and check the brake lights and reverse lights. Make sure your turn signals, headlights, high beams, and tail lights all work. Don't forget to check the license plate bulb and the hazards. The hazard lights use the parking light bulbs to function but the switch to turn them on is actually on a different circuit. It's possible to have fully functional parking lights and turn signals, and have the hazards lights be malfunctioning. So make sure to check each lighting function separately.
Now you'll want to check the battery. I don't mean to walk out into a heated garage and check to see if the car starts. This won't give you any indication of how the battery will perform when the vehicle has been parked outside all night in freezing temperatures. It may cost you a few dollars to have your battery tested at a local service center, and even more if the battery needs to be replaced, but it's worth every penny if it saves you from being stranded in the cold. Most service shops will have an electronic tester for the battery that will give you a health report. The machine will put a heavy load on it that will simulate extreme cold conditions and then you'll know how the battery will actually perform. While you're there getting the battery checked...
Get the brakes checked. As with most of these, this is pretty straight forward. If you don't have 50 percent, or more, of the useable life of the brake pads or shoes left, you should seriously consider replacing them before taking a major road trip in severe weather conditions. A majority of shops will check the brakes for free, and the peace of mind is absolutely worth the minor inconvenience of scheduling a repair shop visit before your trip. The same applies to your ABS system. If the ABS light is on, the system won't function at all and could be very dangerous to drive in the snow. If that's the case, that should absolutely be addressed before any travel. The same can be said for the airbag light, or the check engine light. You won't want to take a road trip with any of your warning lights on, without knowing why that light is on. If the estimate to repair any of these lights seems unfair or too high, or if you want an unbiased second opinion on your repair estimate, even free advice about the cause of a check engine light, go to mycheckenginelight.net, they can help you figure it out.
This next item isn't a traditional item on a safety checklist, but it's as important as the rest of these items, at the least. Get a magnetic box for your spare key, and secure it outside of your vehicle somewhere. These ingenious little boxes have been around for a while and have saved people plenty of money by having a spare key on hand in the event that the keys are lost, or more likely locked inside of the vehicle. They only cost a few dollars, and they've got a pretty strong magnet built into them to hold onto whatever metal you attach it to. As for where to attach it, that can vary wildly depending on the type of vehicle you own. A few guidelines would be: make sure it's not too low to the ground so it won't get rubbed off of the vehicle in deep snow or by a speed bump. Don't put it under the hood because if the car is locked, getting the hood open becomes monumentally more difficult. Don't laugh, you'd be shocked at how many of these spare key holders I've seen under the hood. The best place would be under/behind the rear bumper on the steel of the frame. If you're not sure where that is, or don't see a steel frame under/behind the rear bumper, then I'd recommend a quick search on YouTube for where to put the box for your specific vehicle.
The last item I have for you is arguably the most important -- an emergency kit in case of an accident. Things like a good first aid kit, several road flares to keep traffic away from your vehicle, a flashlight with fresh batteries, a fully charged cell phone to contact authorities or get help, water, matches or a lighter, jumper cables, sand or cat litter to help you gain traction if you get stuck in snow or ice, and even a few blankets to help you stay warm in an extreme circumstance. No one wants to need any of these things on a vacation road trip, but having them could mean the difference between a minor inconvenience and a major catastrophe. Happy holidays and safe travels friends.