The motoring holiday is a great Australian tradition. It's almost a right of passage for young couples and families, but the road is paved with pitfalls for the inexperienced and that means most of us.
The holiday motoring difference
Being an experienced and competent driver in the city and suburbs is little preparation; the open road is a very foreign environment to most urban dwellers. Speeds are higher; the hazards are different and less obvious and distractions are plentiful.
Take speed. 100km/h or 110km/h on a freeway or properly formed major road is nothing special in any modern car, but most holiday roads are unfamiliar territory to us and many hold surprises, such as cross-roads, tightening radius corners, slippery patches or unpredictable traffic conditions.
Then there's your vehicle, or perhaps your 'rig' if you're towing a caravan, camper trailer, boat or trail bikes.
The unladen vehicle that you drive every day accelerates, brakes, handles and hence responds to unexpected situations quite differently when it is laden with holiday paraphernalia: extra people, luggage, kids and adult toys. If you put up to 100kg on a roof-rack or tow bar or add a bike-rack, you are altering the weight balance of the vehicle, meaning that it will probably lean more on corners or become light in the steering at inconvenient times.
Now factor in fatigue, inexperience in judging closing speeds in a heavier vehicle when it comes to overtaking and the distraction of a back seat that periodically choruses 'are we there yet' and you can grasp the dimension of the problem. Yes, it's safer to fly, but nowhere near as much fun!
Preparing your vehicle before you travel
It goes without saying that you should have your vehicle checked over mechanically before a major trip. Constricted cooling systems, worn belts and hoses, cut or worn tyres and dodgy brakes all reveal their worst side when put under unaccustomed load and speed. And it sounds obvious, but few people clean the inside of their windows before they face the setting sun or oncoming lights.
It's also important to prepare your vehicle inside for traveling.
Unless you are keen to revisit countless little-known hits of the 1960s and 1970s, you'll need to take your own music when you get clear of the major FM stations. Talking books or podcasts are also a great idea during those long driving hours.
For back seat passengers, in-car or accessory DVD players are the new peacekeepers, as are iPods and their ilk, but old-fashioned observation games such as guessing the make or state of origin of oncoming cars, or even 'I spy' are interactive pursuits for the whole family.
Look after yourself. Pack some mints, chewing gum or light nibbles and bottled water. The little lift they will give you will raise your level of alertness behind the wheel. And as experienced Outback drivers will tell you, Minties can also help to temporarily plug a radiator or fuel tank leak.
Before you hit the road, hit the net. Check out the sites of the major road authorities in the areas you are traveling to be aware of roadblocks, diversions, bushfires or floods. Set realistic distances. We see some carmakers crowing that their latest diesel vehicles will travel over 1,000km without a refill. Who wants to drive for 12 hours without a break? Fuel stops should be welcome social occasions to rest, stretch and fill your car with fuel and supplies.
If you're worried about the cost of fuel, slow down. You use 25 per cent less fuel at 90km/h than you do at 110km/h, but it will make very little difference to your overall trip time. Speaking of fatigue, research by Australian sleep expert Dr Murray Johns has indicated that this is a factor in around 20 to 30 per cent of road accidents.
The problem, Dr Johns' research and clinical trials have shown, is that the onset of drowsiness begins some time before the driver becomes aware of feeling 'tired.'
Get a good rest before tackling a major driving spell and ensure that you take full advantage of regular breaks (every two hours) to keep your body and mind alert.
Finally, plan to enjoy your trip. Australia is a vast and wonderful place for a driving holiday and it's an experience that should be savoured often, and safely.