Road trips were a fundamental part of my family’s fabric when I was a child. My father, or the Chief Engineer of Adventure, as he referred to himself, was mad for them.
Any long weekend or school break presented another opportunity for him to squash us into whatever family wagon was doing duty at the time, along with the luggage, fishing gear and an array of totally useless accessories.
The Christmas holidays, were a particular favourite, with the extra time put to good use, year after year, along South Africa’s beautiful garden route.
Of course, now that I have children, it is only fair that, they too, get to suffer the joys of the family road trip. Being stuck with annoying siblings for hours at a time, listening to the same songs on repeat, and having to chase after the car if you take too long in the bathroom are just some ways of creating unforgettable memories.
I must admit though that it is only now that I am a parent that I appreciate the time and effort it took my father to plan those adventures so that we stayed comfortable and safe on the road and off it. Here are some ways you can help make your road trip memorable for all the right reasons.
Beware the holiday brain
The bliss of taking time off from the daily grind often results in people paying less attention to activities that still require concentration.
Veteran Queensland Police Inspector Peter Flanders says the laid-back holiday brain can sometimes forget to engage behind the wheel.
“People drive how they live. At holiday time all the natural heightened awareness and concentration goes,” he says.
“More people go without their seat belts, more people are on the phone, and more people have their kids unrestrained in the back seat.”
Keep your eyes on the road and your hands off your phone, the sat nav and the radio. That’s what your co-driver is there for. Bad things still happen on holidays, so it is important that you remember to remain engaged.
Plan, plan, plan
While for many of us, there is a certain appeal to be seen as fun and spontaneous, planning is the foundation of every road trip. Putting considered thought into your movements during your trip means you are less likely to leave during rush hour, find yourself with an empty fuel tank 200km from the nearest service station, or without a place to stay as darkness encroaches. There are a number of apps available that can help take the guesswork out of planning.
Water your noble steed
Apart from your plan, your vehicle will be your closest companion on your trip. Make sure it has been serviced recently and check the water and oil levels, the tyre pressures, the window wipers and lights before you hurry out that driveway.
It is also worth thinking about whether the car you are taking suits the road ahead. The small trusty runabout you bought for its great fuel consumption on your short trip to work may not be as comfortable with three kids jammed into the back, as its thirstier but larger garage companion.
Take a spare car key – and don’t leave it in the glovebox – just in case.
Often we are so keen to get to our holiday destination, so we can start relaxing, that impatience invariably charges in.
“Going to holiday destinations and coming home from them people drive like absolute fools,” Flanders says. “They have a destination and time in mind and woe betide anyone who gets in the way.”
NSW motorcycle cop Sergeant Rob Young is incredulous at some of the risks people take.
“Overtaking on double unbroken lines, travelling too close to the car in front, flashing the lights at a car that’s doing the speed limit in front are just some of the crazy things we see,” he says.
More than 1100 people have died on our roads in 2017, with many of those accidents caused by risky behaviour and lack of attention. Take a minute to breathe.
Be realistic… and flexible
It is an unfortunate reality that drivers overestimate the distance they can travel in a day. They assume, for example, that 1000km is achievable in a day because they will be driving at 100km/h on the highway but fail to account for fuel and rest stops, or getting stuck behind a truck on a single-lane stretch or even those pesky roadworks that always seem to make an appearance at the busiest times of the year.
“The best you’re going to do on any trip is 80km/h, regardless of how much time you spend on the highway. That means 1000km is a two-day journey,” says Flanders. “Drivers think they can drive non-stop for 12 hours and only stop for fuel.”
Better planning and fewer expectations will ensure you err on the side of caution and may very well save your life.
Where’s the fire?
An unrealistic schedule can result in speeding as you press to eke out that extra 100km before stopping for the night. Speed is a contributing factor in one out of three accidents, and while Australia’s roads and driving competency must also be considered, why take the chance?
In the grand scheme of things driving 20km/h faster than the speed limit and darting and weaving through traffic is only likely to get you to your destination 10 minutes earlier. Go figure.
Share the love
While you may believe you are the best driver in your family and would rather bite off your toe than be ensconced in the passenger seat, it really makes sense to share the driving duties.
According to the Sleep Health Foundation Report by Deloitte Access Economics, almost 350 Australians die each year from falling asleep at the wheel of a vehicle and there is no reason it should be you.
Whoever is driving, make sure to stop often, stay hydrated and keep the junk food to a minimum. Take a comfy pillow along, too, so the person who is not driving can have a refreshing snooze.
Mirror, mirror on the wall
The road rules apply even when you are on holiday. Indicate when you are leaving a roundabout, don’t do a U-turn at a traffic light unless it is signposted, and obey speed limits at roadworks. If you are travelling interstate, check to see if expectations are the same.
While the driver aids on newer cars genuinely improve the safety proposition, they can make us complacent about doing the rudimentary checks like paying attention to our side mirrors. Mirror, signal, mirror, manoeuvre is an important safety check even with blind-spot assist.
The kitchen sink
Having a large boot and trailer, doesn’t mean you have to fill them.
“When your car’s packed to the hilt, your vision’s obscured and the weight distribution has changed, which affects the dynamics of the car,” says Young.
“Add a box trailer to the equation and it will change the dynamics further, lifting the front wheels and affecting the steering. And if there’s an emergency up ahead, it will take longer to pull up.”
Make sure things are well secured to the trailer or roof racks if you are using them and check the ties when you stop for a rest.
Speaking of packing, give some consideration to what is going in the boot and what is travelling up front with you. Packing the water bottles in the boot, for example, may not be the best idea. While you are at it, pack an Esky of snacks, too and don’t forget an emergency kit, a jumper and that kitchen sink.
Let me entertain you
After six hours in the car, road trips can start to wear on even the most enthusiastic traveller. Make sure that electronic devices are charged and you have the chargers with you, that podcasts, audio books and playlists are downloaded and you have drawing supplies and games with magnetic boards.
The good old 'I Spy' and 'Spotto' can always be called on to.
The Chief Engineer of Adventure used to allow two 'Are we there?' whines per day, the third punishable by the withdrawal of sugar for the rest of the day. Needless to say, that’s a tradition we hold on to in my house too.
In 400m, turn right… into the river
Satellite navigation units and apps are a modern-day marvel but they are not infallible. Pack the tried and tested paper map, yes that old relic, especially if you are travelling to unfamiliar destinations.