If you’re planning a road trip this summer, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration encourages drivers to spend a little time pre-planning to ensure everyone stays safe on the highway. The government agency recommends drivers perform some simple safety vehicle checks before hitting the road to avoid a breakdown. Consumers also should check to see if their vehicle has an outstanding recall. NHTSA also reminds drivers and passengers to use seat belts and restrain children in properly installed car seats and booster seats.

Safety checks

Routine maintenance such as oil changes, tire rotations and tune-ups can prevent your car from breaking down on the go. Cars that have followed recommended manufacturer service schedules are likely in good condition for your road trip. But NHTSA also recommends that drivers who don’t know a vehicle’s service history have it checked out by a mechanic.

Here are some things you should look over before setting off on a cross-country or even cross-state trip:

1.     Air conditioning. Check to make sure your unit is cranking out cold air before a long car ride. Lack of AC in the hot summer sun can impact anyone, but especially the elderly and children.

2.     Cooling system. Your radiator needs water and antifreeze to help the engine work properly. When your car’s engine is completely cool, check the coolant level. You want it full. If the coolant appears clear, rusty or has things floating in it, you likely need your system flushed and refilled. If the coolant appears oily, NHTSA recommends you have a mechanic look at it.

3.     Fluid levels. Check your oil level, plus brake, automatic transmission or clutch, power steering and windshield washer fluids and fill them to full if necessary. If you think you have a leak, take it to a mechanic.

4.     Belts and hoses. Lift the hood and look at the belts and hoses. If you see any bulges, cracks or cuts, it’s likely replacement time. Also make sure hose connections are tight.

5.     Wiper blades. Check for wear and tear and replace if necessary.

6.     Floor mats. Floor mats that aren’t properly installed can cause issues when you try to use the brake or accelerator, increasing the risk of a collision. Use mats that are the right size and fit for your car and use clips to secure each mat.

7.     Lights. Make sure your headlights, brake lights, turn signal lights, flashers and interior lights work correctly. If you are towing a boat on a trailer, check those brake lights and turn signals, too.

8.     Tire pressure and wear. When the vehicle’s been off and sitting for at least three hours, check the tire inflation pressure on each tire using a tire pressure gauge. The correct pressure for your tires is printed on a label on the driver’s door pillar or frame and it’s also in your owner’s manual. Also check tires for “excessive or uneven wear.” Uneven wear likely means the tires need rotating and/or the wheels need an alignment. If the tire tread is worn to 2/32 of an inch, it’s recommended you replace the tire. To check, put a penny in the tread with President Lincoln’s head upside down. If you can see the top of Lincoln’s head, you need new tires.

9.     Emergency kit. It’s smart to pack a few essentials just in case you run into trouble. Some suggested items, in addition to a cellphone and charger, include a first aid kit, water and food, flashlight, flares, jumper cables, jack and tire pressure gauge.


NHTSA regulates recalls that either the manufacturer or the agency determine “creates an unreasonable safety risk or fails to meet minimum safety standards.” They cover vehicles, equipment, car seats or tires.

To see if your car, truck, SUV or motorcycle has an open safety recall and needs a repair you can use the VIN Look-up Tool at www.nhtsa.gov/recalls. Simply enter your 17-character Vehicle Identification Number (located in the lower left of your windshield) to check for any incomplete recalls. You’ll also see recalls completed on the car over the past 15 years.

Recall fixes are free to consumers. The agency requires manufacturers to either fix the issue through repair or replacement, issue a refund, or in some rare cases, buy back a vehicle.

Seat belts and child seats

Everyone should wear their seat belts and children 13 and younger should ride in the back seat. Those who need to be in a child seat should be in one designed for their size and age and it should be properly installed. For help with car seat selection, check out NHTSA’s website.

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