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(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Autophile

A summer road trip survival guide Add to ...

In my mother’s youthful optimism one summer, she crammed our 1962 Mercury Comet with a couple of suitcases, three kids under six and a flatulent cocker spaniel. She would be the lone driver on a road trip from Halifax to Windsor, Ont.

Dad was in the Navy and couldn’t share in the experience. There was no AC, no power windows, and definitely no DVD player in the back seat; no iPads to keep us busy, or from arguing over who didn’t have to sit in the lumpy middle seat or next to my sister – who was prone to barfing on any trip more than 50 kilometres from home.

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We’re still not sure how mom did it.

Fifty years later, I called to ask her what she was thinking then. Had she thought about overheating, running out of gas, flat tires?

“People worry too much about things today,” she said. “I just assumed nothing bad would happen.”

We survived – without seat belts – and me, the eldest, sometimes riding shotgun.

We’re at the height of road trip season. And although cars have come a long way, they still need to be maintained.

“Today’s vehicles are pretty complex with electronic systems,” says Don Szarko, an Alberta Motor Association spokesperson.

Zen and the art of car maintenance

People tend to think that because the weather is nice, nothing can go wrong. “Every fall, we talk to people about winter maintenance, but from a roadside assistance perspective, we attend to the same amount of calls for dead batteries and flat tires,” says Szarko.

A standard road trip checklist at your local garage should include the following:

  • Battery check.
  • Check air, fuel and oil filters.
  • Get the oil changed if it’s close to its due date.
  • Even if your tires don’t look worn, make sure there are no cracks or cuts, which can cause a blow-out. Ensure the tires are at proper pressure.
  • Top up all the fluids. AC can strain the engine.

Summer highway headaches

Waiting to be waved through a construction site, turn off the air conditioning. Roll down the windows until you get moving again.

Construction is a major headache right across the country, Szarko says. So play nice. “You are going to be delayed. Count on it,” he says. Road rage easily sets in as people rush to get out of the city. Inevitably, someone will want to race to the front of the line. “You have to be more respectful … in these situations.”

Keep the road trip tunes at a volume low enough for you to notice an emergency vehicle. “When you see an emergency vehicle, slow down,” says Szarko. Each province has its own rules on proper procedure.

Be patient with big rigs and RVs. Szarko advises: “Give yourself more time to get where you’re going.” Avoid construction slowdowns by checking online before you leave, and plan a different route. Monitor the news or Twitter traffic feeds.

If your car breaks down on the side of a busy highway and you’re waiting for help, be sure to stay on the “ditch” side and not the traffic side. Every summer, several people are killed this way.

Shoulds and nice-to-haves

If you can’t change a tire, carry a portable pump in case of a slow leak. Or carry a canister of tire sealant. Don’t drive on a flat tire. It will ruin the tire and can be an expensive repair.

Carry a spare key. You never know when you might lose the fob while swimming in a lake.

Get roadside assistance and read the fine print for details on rental cars or accommodation in case of a major breakdown or accident.

Invest in a roadside safety kit.

If you need to use pylons, place them about 15 to 20 metres behind and in front of the car to warn other drivers.

Lastly, always let friends or family know that you’re heading out on a road trip and what time you’re leaving and when you expect to arrive.

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