How to stay safe during your summer road trip

Driving down summer roadways may seem safer than crunching through winter ice and snow. But summer is the most dangerous time on the highway, with the highest fatality rates coming in July and August.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said the average 116 traffic deaths a day in those months result partly from more cars on the road and vacation travelers driving in unfamiliar locations. If you're among those hitting the road, you can boost your chances of getting the family to your destination and back home safely by carefully preparing your car and knowing how to react in dangerous summer situations.

Here's a look at some key areas of preparation and alert driving:

Tires are crucial

In checking that your vehicle is ready for the summer road, make sure your tires aren't worn. In a new report, AAA compared braking performance on vehicles traveling on wet roads at 60 miles an hour with new and worn tires. With worn tires, a car took 87 feet longer to stop than one with new tires. That could be the difference between stopping in time or hitting a pedestrian or the car ahead. 

Some advice for checking your tires:

  • Give them the coin test. Slip an upside-down quarter into the tire treads. If you can see all of George Washington's head, it's time to buy new tires. AAA says old tires should be replaced when the tread wears down to one-eighth of an inch, which is sooner than laws and regulations require in many states.
  • Keep checking the tires every few days while on the road. Make sure they're inflated to the recommended pressure. Underinflated tires can lower your gas mileage and in some cases become a safety issue. If you have a recent model car, it may have a tire pressure alert that lights up on the dashboard when any tire is 25 percent below correct pressure.

Rainy roads raise hazards

AAA tested tires on wet roads because driving in the rain reduces your control and means it will take you longer to stop. So follow the commonsense advice to slow down when it's raining. Some other tips:

  • Avoid using cruise control in the rain. You can respond more quickly without it.
  • Know what to do if the car hydroplanes -- when the tires lose contact with the road completely. Don't hit the brakes, which can cause the car to skid. Keep a light pressure on the accelerator and steer gently in the direction you want the car to go, advises Michelin tire expert Ron Margadonna.

Construction sites signal danger

Summer is a great time for vacation driving. Unfortunately, it's also the best time for road repair or new road construction. Since cars often must slow suddenly and then change lanes at such sites, accident possibilities are multiplied. Construction and maintenance sites have averaged 773 fatal accidents per year, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control.

Be extra alert near construction sites for these signals:

  • Read road signs carefully and merge early if you need to change lanes.
  • Keep watching both your side mirrors. Aggressive drivers may try to change lanes suddenly even where there isn't enough space. 

Remember also that accidents aren't the only thing that can spoil your vacation. AAA expects to answer 7.7 million calls for assistance this summer from travelers whose cars have broken down.  

So before you leave home, make sure your battery is at full strength. In addition, don't forget your spare tire (if your car has one) -- it should be fully inflated. Double check that your oil and other engine and brake fluids have been changed according to manufacturers' recommendations.

And just in case, be sure to pack jumper cables and a strong flashlight. 

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.