The best driving holidays take preparation ...

Tips for making those long holiday road trips safer and more enjoyable.

Being on holidays is a lot of fun but getting there can be a drama. Cheap flights mean driving interstate can be avoided by some, but many others will have to drive.

Packing the car and hightailing it out of town is a national institution, especially on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, some don't make it unscathed to their destinations. Overloaded, poorly maintained vehicles, unaccustomed to summer heat, can break down. There is nothing more heart-rending than seeing a family stranded on the side of the road, halfway to their destination, with a steaming engine or two flat tyres.

More seriously, crashes occur with frightening regularity during the holiday season as roads become crowded, brains are switched off and, in some cases, responsibility goes out the window. Blame it on too much Christmas turkey, but often it's the turkey behind the wheel that's at fault. National Lampoon's Vacation movies might be comedy to some but for many they're more like instruction manuals and Clark Griswold is a role model.

So, in the spirit of the Great Christmas Road Trip, we have come up with a few tips on how to make your journey more convenient and hopefully safer. Some of it will seem like nitpicking or preaching to the converted, but in most cases we haven't gone far enough. Remember, you don't have responsibility just for your own wellbeing out on the road, but for that of others as well.

Be prepared

It doesn't matter whether it's only a two-hour drive to the beach or a long-haul, overnight trip: preparation can be vital.

Packing sensibly ensures you take what you need but it can also be a safety factor. Having the car in tip-top condition might guard against minor breakdowns that can turn into major headaches if you become stranded. Planning also affects the driver, who, if fatigued, irritated or distracted, isn't concentrating on the job.

The trick is to plan ahead so there are no surprises just before you leave. Here are a few tips for having a happy holiday.

Mental preparation

It's not a matter of meditation, prayer or reaching a state of Zen-like calm before leaving, but just being sensible. Rushing home from work, flinging everything into the car and roaring off after dark might seem necessary, but a good night's sleep is probably the better option.

Have a good think about whether you're in a hurry: once you wheel the car out into the inevitable traffic jam leaving the city, the temptation to forge ahead could lead to desperate driving manoeuvres. So plan ahead and accept that it might take longer than usual to reach your destination, go with the flow, and you'll be surprised how the sea of cars eventually opens before you.

Packing

An Esky with the ham and turkey. Bags of clothes. Beach umbrella. Folding chairs. Pram, dog mattress, camera, spare pillow, kitchen supplies and wine bottles. We're not going to tell you what to take or leave behind, but assuming it is all going to fit in your Mazda MX-5 or Nissan Patrol, just make sure it's all stowed properly.

Piles of stuff teetering on the dashboard and parcel shelf are dangerous. They block the driver's vision and might become deadly projectiles in a crash. Pack them properly or leave them behind.

Those with four-wheel-drives or wagons should consider a cargo barrier, which can work wonders keeping the luggage in the back in the event of a crash. For the sake of a few hundred dollars, it's a worthy investment.

If you have perishables, check which side the car's exhaust is on and put them on the other side of the boot to avoid heat. Investigate where the spare tyre is and how it is accessed. If it is under the floor of the boot, blocking access might be unavoidable, or you might be able to pack so it is easier to get at.

Necessary stuff

Here are a few things you should have with you, especially if you're a stickler for safety and convenience. A mobile phone can be a life-saver, and a handy diversion for passengers - but not the driver. A bag for rubbish keeps everything neat and tidy. The driver will probably want sunglasses to guard against glare, and looking up a few important phone numbers before leaving - such as the RACV's breakdown service - could avoid some headaches later. So could a first-aid kit. Have a bottle of water handy to avoid wasting time and money on sticky drinks from service stations. A bag of sweets can do wonders for the driver's blood sugar levels and concentration. It might sound obvious, but doubly so if you realise something useful has been left behind.

Tyres

Here's one mechanical check you can easily do and it's arguably the most important. Check tyre pressures before leaving, making sure all at least match the manufacturer's specifications (there will be a plaque somewhere on your car, usually just inside the driver's door). If you're carrying or towing a heavy load, pump them up a bit more (to the maximum recommended by the placard). Check tread-depth for excessive wear against the indicators in the grooves. And don't forget the spare: nothing's worse than unloading a boot-load of gear on the side of the road only to find it too is flat.

Servicing

It's worth ensuring your car has been serviced recently before heading off, at least to ensure oil, brake fluid and coolant levels are correct (or you can do those yourself), and any impending problem is stopped in its tracks. If you've noticed a small, annoying problem - a knock in the suspension, or a hesitation to start in the morning, for instance - now's the time to get it fixed.

The cooling system is particularly important because sometimes it likes to go on holidays when the weather turns hot. Look for leaks in radiator hoses or loose clamps, and keep a wary eye on whether the coolant bottle is getting low on fluid. Have the air-conditioning checked or regassed so it performs at its best under load. Honk the horn, replace the wiper blades if necessary, fill up the windscreen washer bottle, make sure headlights and tail lights are working and get someone to pump the brakes while you check the brake lights.

Navigation

Chances are you've followed the same route to the same destination every year. But you might be heading for that faraway fishing hole, or attempting a big interstate trip. It might sound obvious, but check a map before you go, and take it with you. Road signs are all right these days but a spot of research before you leave means you get to see the things you want to, not avoid what the road-makers thought was too boring. And drivers, have some sympathy and patience for your navigator, who might not be good with maps. If you are heading into remote areas, it is necessary before leaving to check road conditions, which can be done on the internet.

On the road

It would be nice to believe that road accidents only happen to other people, but think again. If you accept "accidents" happen because of fate, that's one thing, but the truth is they occur for reasons that might include drunkenness, inappropriate speed or sheer lack of foresight.

Assuming everyone knows how to avoid the first two, there are plenty of ways to be fore-armed against the last. On one level, defensive driving - more an attitude than a skill ­- can lead to a more pleasant and enjoyable drive. On another, it might save your life.

Be alert

This goes for any driving situation at any time and not just longer trips. But never underestimate the ability of your fellow road users to do something unpredictable, stupid or illegal that might literally impact on you.

So think ahead. If you are following someone, leave a space that allows for braking or otherwise avoiding any trouble they might find themselves in, such as swerving for oncoming traffic or avoiding something on the road.

Analyse any situation and imagine what might go wrong, and always look as far ahead down the road as possible. A slow-moving tractor heading your way along a country road? Think that someone might swerve around it on your side of the road, and look for escape routes. Approaching an intersection? Don't assume entering traffic will give way just because it has to. Getting dark? Put on your headlights - not just the parkers - because you never know how good the other person's vision is.

Stop safely

It doesn't happen often, but on occasions a car parked on the side of a road or freeway gets hit by another that swerves in the wrong place at the wrong time. The results can be terrible, so if you have to pull off the road, find an appropriate place to do it. It might be because of something major like a sick child or a flat tyre, or more minor like the need to stretch or get a drink out of the boot, but that doesn't mean safety goes out the window.

Wait for a roadside stop if you can, or if you can't, at least avoid crests and corners. Don't leave two wheels on the bitumen, but get well away from traffic. Think of what other drivers are seeing, and how far they'll have to move across into (possibly) oncoming traffic to avoid you. Then think about if they don't see you at all because they're distracted by something else and what the consequences might be. Find out the best places to pull over for a rest stop before you go.

Overtaking

Plenty of drivers seem to avoid overtaking altogether, which is fine as long as you don't mind travelling at another driver's pace, but as long as you're careful, crossing into the right lane should be as safe as houses.

You'll obviously want to have a clear line of sight on the road ahead, and leave plenty of time to complete the manoeuvre before encountering oncoming traffic. That doesn't mean calculating missing an oncoming car by mere metres; make sure they're a long way off.

Don't cram up behind the vehicle you're about to overtake; hanging back 20 metres or so lets you see the road ahead, not just their rear bumper. Use your indicators, pick a lower gear if your car has a manual gearbox, and don't cut-in on the vehicle you're about to overtake. Even give them a wave to inspire courtesy.

Manners work both ways. If you're in no hurry and travelling below the speed limit, be aware of following traffic and don't be surprised (or annoyed, or indignant) if it wants to get past. Some roads have bays for slower cars to let others past, so use them. But don't try to make things easier for other drivers by moving off into the gravel at pace: the chaos of spraying stones and dodging cars can be unbelievable.

Control your passengers

It sounds harsh, but the driver has a job to do and shouldn't be unnecessarily distracted. Dealing with kids in the back seat can be nightmarish but at least make sure they're wearing seatbelts (which goes for adults too), and refuse to drive on if they're not. Make sure there's no unnecessary coverage of mirrors or other sight-lines, and if it's less distracting for you to listen to the cricket on the radio than Eminem's latest personal problems at 110 decibels (or vice versa) then the others will just have to wear it. Good luck.

Eat, drink, stop, rest

Don't look on long-distance driving as doing the Le Mans 24 Hours in a single stint. The experts recommend a break every two hours to improve concentration, but of course if you're sleepy or wandering at any time, just stop. Or hand the driving duties to someone else. Have plenty of water on hand, and think about taking along something healthy to eat such as a sandwich or fruit instead of relying on heavy, greasy takeaways that can play havoc with your metabolism.

There's rules and then there's rules

Australia's road rules are mostly uniform. So if you're heading from Victoria into another state, you know to stick to the left, use seatbelts, give way to someone turning left if you're turning right and don't cross double lines. But some road rules are different and might catch you out.

For instance, in Victoria you can do a U-turn at an intersection controlled by traffic lights, unless there's a sign stating otherwise. In NSW, doing a U-turn at the lights is illegal unless it says you can.

Small, single-axle trailers don't have to be registered in Victoria as long as they're being towed by a vehicle with Victorian plates. Pack extra luggage into such a trailer and head over the border into NSW and you're certain to be fined because they need separate registration.

Then there are NSW towns that require reverse angle parking. Traffic comes to a standstill as Victorians try to back into a spot and, more often then not, also hit the kerb.

Kids in cars

Hollywood movies often struggle to imitate reality, or ignore it altogether. But anyone who's seen the second instalment of the Shrek franchise will immediately identify with that infuriating cry from the back seat of "are we there yet?" No matter how much you love them, when it's your own children instead of a talking donkey, the answer usually is not soon enough.

Out-of-control kids can be a huge distraction, but look at it from their point of view. Shackled in the back seat, getting dragged off to who-knows-where to visit relatives who eat, drink and watch cricket isn't exactly a blissful prospect. Children have minds as well as heaps of energy; it's your job to harness both for good instead of evil.

The easy if expensive option is to have some sort of electronic entertainment such as video games or a DVD player. Cars such as the Holden Caprice have both systems fitted as standard in the rear, the back seat is huge and so is the boot, making it a perfect holiday car. Which is fine, if you have $70,000-odd to spare to buy one. But aftermarket DVD players can be fitted for about $1000, and hand-held devices cost less than half that. Many notebook computers can be set up to play DVDs. Just don't buy Shrek II and give back-seat passengers any funny ideas.

Cheaper and more cerebral are non-electronic games such as Scrabble, chess or even Pictionary, which can all be bought in compact travel form.

But safety is always more important than entertainment, so never tolerate unbuckled seatbelts, and use the proper restraints such as capsules, baby seats and boosters, depending on age. If you all arrive safe as well as sane, half the holiday job is done.


In tow

If you are towing a caravan, trailer or boat trailer, don't forget to check its tyres, as well as the hitch mechanism and electricals, especially the tail lights. Just because a trailer has been left for months unused doesn't mean it has to be forgotten.

Emergency!

Every car should have a first-aid kit stored somewhere, but it's doubly important for holiday travelling. Plasters, bandages, burn cream and the basic drugs for pain and gastro-intestinal problems are the basics. And it's worth knowing where there's a doctor handy at your destination. St John Ambulance and RACV shops have a good range of first-aid kits.

Pet care

Travelling with pets? If it's a flighty dog or cat, get a travel capsule such as the airlines use. You'll be surprised how they treat it territorially. Otherwise, some sort of restraint is advisable. Carry water as well as a bowl, but don't feed them too much, and stop regularly for their comfort.

Lock it up

Even if you're leaving all your cares behind, don't forget you'll want to return home with possessions intact. Secure and deadlock doors and windows, remove visible valuables from windows, leave a light on and get a friend to keep an eye on things if possible. Lock the shed and don't leave garden tools lying about.

Clean sweep

If you can't be bothered washing the car, at least give the interior a thorough tidy before you leave on holiday. Junk accumulates fast enough as it is, so starting with a clean slate will help. Making sure the windscreen and windows are actually transparent is also a good idea.


Check it out

For road condition reports in different states (especially outback roads) go to the following websites.

Victoria

http://www.vicroads.vic.gov.au

NSW

www.rta.nsw.gov.au/trafficreports/index.html

South Australia

www.transport.sa.gov.au/quicklinks/roadworks.asp

Queensland

http://www.racq.com.au

Northern Territory

http://www.roadreport.nt.gov.au