Regular maintenance such as tune-ups, oil changes, battery checks, and tire rotations go a long way toward preventing breakdowns. If your vehicle has been serviced according to the manufacturer’s recommendations, it should be in good condition to travel. If not—or you don’t know the service history of the vehicle you plan to drive—schedule a preventive maintenance checkup with your mechanic right away.
Owners may not always know that their vehicle has been recalled and needs to be repaired. NHTSA’s VIN look-up tool lets you enter a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to quickly learn if a specific vehicle has not been repaired as part of a safety recall in the last 15 years. Check for recalls on your vehicle by searching now: nhtsa.gov/recalls.
Regardless of how well you take care of your ride, it’s important to perform the following basic safety checks before you go on a road trip.
Check your vehicle’s tire inflation pressure at least once a month and when your tires are cold (when the car hasn’t been driven for three hours or more)—and don’t forget to check your spare if your vehicle is equipped with one. The correct pressure for your tires is listed on a label on the driver’s door pillar or doorframe or in the vehicle owner’s manual—the correct tire pressure for your vehicle is NOT the number listed on the tire itself. A tire doesn’t have to be punctured to lose air. All tires naturally lose some air over time and become underinflated. In fact, underinflation is the leading cause of tire failure.
Also, take five minutes to inspect your tires for signs of excessive or uneven wear. If the tread is worn down to 2/32 of an inch, it’s time to replace your tires. Look for the built-in wear bar indicators on your tires or use the “penny test” to determine when it’s time to replace your tires. Place a penny in the tread with Lincoln’s head upside down. If you can see the top of Lincoln’s head, your vehicle needs new tires. If you find uneven wear across the tires’ tread, it means your tires need rotation and/or your wheels need to be aligned before you travel. For more information on tire safety, visit NHTSA’s TireWise page at www.safercar.gov/tires.
See and be seen! Make sure all the lights on your vehicle are in working order. Check your headlights, brake lights, turn signals, emergency flashers, and interior lights. Towing a trailer? Be sure to also check your trailer including brake lights and turn signals. A failure of the trailer light connection is a common problem and a serious safety hazard.
The radiator in your vehicle needs water and antifreeze (coolant) to keep your engine functioning properly. When your car hasn’t been running and the engine is completely cool, carefully check your coolant level to make sure the reservoir is full. In addition, if your coolant is clear, looks rusty, or has particles floating in it, it is time to have your cooling system flushed and refilled. If your coolant looks sludgy or oily, immediately take your vehicle to a mechanic.
Check your vehicle’s oil level periodically. As with coolant, if it’s time or even nearly time to have the oil changed, now would be a good time to do it. In addition, check the following fluid levels: brake, automatic transmission or clutch, power steering, and windshield washer. Make sure each reservoir is full; if you see any signs of fluid leakage, take your vehicle in to be serviced.
Look under the hood and inspect all belts and hoses to make sure there are no signs of bulges, blisters, cracks, or cuts in the rubber. High summer temperatures accelerate the rate at which rubber belts and hoses degrade, so it’s best to replace them now if they show signs of obvious wear. While you’re at it, check all hose connections to make sure they’re secure.
After the heavy toll imposed by winter storms and spring rains, windshield wiper blades may need to be replaced. Like rubber belts and hoses, wiper blades are vulnerable to the summer heat. Examine your blades for signs of wear and tear on both sides. The blades can also deform and fail to work properly in both directions. If they are’t in top condition, invest in new ones before you go.
Check A/C performance before traveling. Lack of air conditioning on a hot summer day affects people who are in poor health or are sensitive to heat, such as children and older adults.
Improperly installed floor mats in your vehicle may interfere with the operation of the accelerator or brake pedal, increasing the risk of a crash.
Even a well maintained vehicle can break down, so it’s advisable to put together an emergency roadside kit to carry with you. A cell phone tops the list of suggested emergency kit contents since it allows you to call for help when and where you need it. Suggested emergency roadside kit contents:
When traveling with children, take every precaution to keep them safe.
Remember that long trips can be tough on children—and, in turn, tough on you. Plan enough time to stop along the way to take a group stretch, get something to eat and drink, return any calls or text messages, and change drivers if you’re feeling tired or drowsy. Consider staying overnight at a hotel or family resort. It can make the trip easier and less tiring for everyone—and more of an adventure, too. Bring along a few favorite books, videos, or soft toys to keep little ones content and occupied. The trip will seem to go faster for them, and keep you from being distracted every time they ask, "Are we there yet?"
Long distance driving can be tedious, and it’s tempting to look for something to distract you to make the time pass faster. But when you’re the driver, your only responsibility is to keep your eyes on the road, hands on the wheel, and concentration on the task of driving. No loss of life—neither your passengers nor any other road users—are worth a phone call or text. And remember, law enforcement officers across the Nation are now using innovative strategies to aggressively enforce their State distracted driving laws.
Warmer weather attracts many types of roadway users, including motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians.
While they have the same rights, privileges and responsibilities as every motorist, these road users are more vulnerable because they do not have the protection of a car or truck.
Leave more distance between you and a motorcycle—3 or 4 seconds’ worth. Motorcycles are much lighter than other vehicles and can stop in much shorter distances.
Always signal your intentions before changing lanes or merging with traffic. This allows other road users to anticipate your movement and find a safe lane position.
Be mindful of pedestrians. Things to remember as a driver:
You should know that there are other dangers to children in and around cars. One of those dangers is hyperthermia, or heatstroke. Heatstroke can occur when a child is left unattended in a parked vehicle or gains unsupervised access. Never leave children alone in the car—not even for a few minutes or with the engine running. Vehicles heat up quickly; if the outside temperature is in the low 80s°, the temperature inside the vehicle can reach deadly levels in just a few minutes—even with a window rolled down. A child’s body temperature rises three to five times faster than that of an adult.
Before you back out of a driveway or parking spot, prevent backovers by walking around your vehicle to check for children running and playing. When using a backup camera, remember that kids, pets and objects may still be out of view but in the path of your vehicle. When children play, they are often oblivious to cars and trucks around them. They may believe that motorists will watch out for them. Furthermore, every vehicle has a blind zone. As the size and height of a vehicle increases, so does the "blind zone" area. Large vehicles, trucks, SUVs, RVs, and vans, are more likely than cars to be involved in backovers.
Be sure to lock your vehicle’s doors at all times when it’s not in use. Put the keys somewhere that children can’t get to them. Children who enter vehicles on their own with no adult supervision can be killed or injured by power windows, seat belt entanglement, vehicle rollaway, heatstroke or trunk entrapment.
Visit www.safercar.gov/parents to find out more about how to keep children safe in and around vehicles.