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Merry And Happy? Holiday Road-Trippers Can Expect Traffic Jams, High Fuel Costs, Bad Weather

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After most of us celebrated last year’s holidays in isolation due to the pandemic, the merriment should finally return to some semblance of normal as 2021 winds down.

Unfortunately for travelers looking to reconnect with geographically distant friends and relatives, that means they’ll face the most traffic-clogged roads in the last two years, the highest gasoline prices in a decade, and what the Old Farmer’s Almanac is calling a “season of shivers.” 

The AAA predicts 53.4 million people will travel for the Thanksgiving holiday, with 90 percent of them heading over the river and through the proverbial woods via their cars, trucks, and SUVs. That’s an 8 percent increase in road trip travel over 2020. What’s more, gas prices are around a dollar per gallon costlier now than they were a year ago, with those living in California suffering the most pain at the pump at an average $4,69 for regular grade fuel and a whopping $5.00 for premium according to the AAA.

As if that’s not enough vehicular hardship, the Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts that extreme cold and/or snowy conditions should prevail or at least reach into much of the U.S. in the wintry weeks ahead. Even of you live in a warmer climate you’ll likely encounter some of the worst Old Man Winter has to offer if you plan on heading north to celebrate the holidays. 

That means both making sure your vehicle is up to the task and being mindful of altering your driving habits should conditions take a sudden turn for the worse.

Unless its brand new or has recently been serviced and deemed roadworthy, it’s always a good idea to have your car, truck, or SUV inspected by a technician to ensure it will be able to survive an extended excursion into frosty territory, though there are some checks you can do yourself.

For starters, inspect the battery, ensuring that the cable connections are tight and that the terminals are free from corrosion – if you see a white powder at the contacts, clean them off with a wire brush. If you’re taking the car to the shop, have a mechanic check the battery’s charge level. If the battery is several years old, consider buying a new one as a preventive measure.

Test the cooling system’s antifreeze efficiency with an inexpensive tester that’s sold at any auto parts store or have a technician perform this check. If it’s been two or more years since this was accomplished, it’s a good idea to have the system flushed and refilled with a 50/50 percent mixture of coolant and water.

Change the engine oil and oil filter, and check brake, transmission and power steering fluid levels, topping off as necessary. Have the engine’s air and fuel filters changed according to the manufacturer’s service interval, or as otherwise required; likewise have belts and hoses checked out to ensure they’re not cracked or frayed.

Replace the windshield wipers, and top off the washer fluid reservoir. Buy a spare jug of fluid to keep in the trunk, and don’t forget to carry a good quality ice scraper.

Importantly, inspect the vehicle’s tires for uneven and excessive tread wear. Tires are manufactured with warning bars that appear in the grooves of the tires when they have a mere slice of tire tread remaining. If you see them, have the tires replaced. You can also stick a penny headfirst into the tread, and if you can see the top of Lincoln’s head it’s time for a change. 

If all otherwise looks well at all four corners, check the tires’ air pressure with a good-quality air gauge and keep the tires inflated according to the automaker’s recommendations. Air pressure in a tire typically decreases by one-to-two pounds for every 10 degrees of temperature change.

If you drive a higher performance car that’s fitted with what’s called “summer” tires, have them swapped for a set of all-season radials that will deliver added traction on wet or snowy roads. Those driving rear-drive cars in snowy areas should consider having a set of mud and snow tires installed.

When you head out, be sure to dress according to weather conditions where you’re going and along the way. Always carry a fully charged cell phone and tell friends or relatives when you’re leaving, the route you’re traveling and the expected arrival time. Never hit the road with less than a full tank of gas. Especially if you’re driving an extended distance, pack a “survival kit” with blankets and gloves, a first-aid kit, drinking water and cups, a radio and flashlight with extra batteries, reading materials, and healthy snacks, among other essentials.

If inclement weather sets in while you’re driving, turn on the car’s headlamps so you can see and be seen. Slow down and leave extra room from the traffic ahead – your car’s brakes won’t grip as tenaciously as they would over dry pavement. 

Beware of frozen patches, especially over bridges and overpasses that tend to freeze sooner than paved roads. Accelerate smoothly when climbing hills to avoid spinning the wheels and maintain your car’s momentum without stopping; reduce speed and drive as slowly down hill as possible. 

Take heed of trucks and snowplows you may encounter. A fully loaded tractor/trailer can take the length of a football field (including end-zones) to come to a halt at highway speeds. It’s best to say behind a plow, if for no other reason, because that’s where the road will be the safest. Experts say to maintain a safe distance – about 15 truck lengths – as plow drivers can frequently change lanes, make turns, or exit a highway. Do not pass or get between trucks plowing in a plow line, which is when two or more trucks are working the road side by side.

If you do hit a slippery spot and the vehicle begins to skid, stay calm and steer in the direction you want to go, maintaining a light and steady foot on the accelerator. Slamming on the brakes is usually counter-productive when a vehicle is sliding sideways. If the stability control warning light flashes on the dashboard, which means the system is engaging to help counter wheel spin, interpret it as a signal to slow down.

And keep in mind that even if you’re driving a car or truck equipped with all-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive, there’s no violating the laws of physics. Driving all four wheels might make a vehicle go faster on wet on snowy pavement, but even the beefiest 4WD trucks can spin out of control on a patch of ice or through a slick curve if driven without regard to conditions.

Let’s make sure this year’s holiday season is memorable, and for all the right reasons.

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