RoadTrip America

Routes, Planning, & Inspiration for Your North American Road Trip

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Highway 14, South Dakota
Roadtrip! What a great idea. Oh, but wait. What about the weather? And the mountains and black ice and desert and hail? Oh! And what about the criminals lying in wait? Sure, road trips can pose some challenges, but information and a few sensible precautions will have you safely on the road in no time.

About once a week, I receive an e-mail that goes something like this: "I am going to drive from point A to point B. Is it safe?" My first inclination is to say, "Of course it's safe, for heaven's sake. People do it every day." But I understand what the correspondent means. While it is the foray into the unknown that makes road trips so appealing, driving can be dangerous, and it is true that road trips are more risky than amusement-park rides. Fortunately, there are simple steps you can take to ensure that your next road trip is safe and sane, while still plenty adventurous.

Much of the concern I hear centers around unfamiliar weather and topography. I get urgent requests for advice from southerners planning to drive across the Great Plains in winter, certain they're heading into a frozen oblivion "hundreds of miles from civilization." Likewise, I hear from New Englanders who dread crossing ice-covered passes in the Rocky Mountains and Washingtonians who fear they will shrivel into beef jerky in Death Valley.

Such fears are not entirely irrational, of course. My personal nightmare scenarios include being slammed by a flashflood on a desert highway at night, and hitting a stretch of black ice on a bridge and falling into a frozen river below. Since terrifying events can and do occur on road trips, I resist the urge to say, "Oh, come on! What's the worst that can happen?" Instead I offer some perspective and some advice.

Information is the best defense, and there is plenty of it available. Click here for resources for obtaining accurate information on weather, road conditions and other matters of interest to road trippers. It is quite difficult these days to drive more than 100 miles on an American road without coming upon a town or a service station, even in the once-empty expanses of the West. Cell phone service is also more prevalent than it used to be. Even so, you can't always count on it, and it's worth considering acquiring a CB radio to fill in the gaps and to keep tabs on nearby professional truck drivers, who regularly report on road hazards.

After weather and topography come travelers' fear that they might encounter people who wish them harm. Foreign tourists and young adults seem to be especially afflicted with this fear, apparently because they get many of their impressions about America from Hollywood movies and press coverage of sensational news. I have spent nearly 30 years roaming around North America, and I can think of only three instances when I encountered individuals who made no secret of their intent to commit a crime against me. I didn't give any of them the opportunity to follow through with their threat, but it helped that I had been aware enough to keep my distance.

It helps to remember that every town in America is someone's home town, and that most of the people feel comfortable and even friendly there. While there are some neighborhoods, particularly in major cities, that are best avoided, people are basically the same everywhere. The common-sense personal radar that serves you in your home town usually works just fine in someone else's city, as long as you increase the focus one notch to orient yourself in the unfamiliar surroundings.

Here are six tips for feeling safe and sane on the road:

1. Don't advertise your travels. Avoid leaving road maps in plain sight inside your parked car; instead, try to look like a local, even if your license plate isn't. If your vehicle is laden with luggage, and especially if you have gear stowed on the roof, park where you can see it from a restaurant or store. At night, take everything that is in plain view with you into your motel room.

2. Look like you know where you're going. When sightseeing, avoid standing on street corners wearing a befuddled expression while staring at a guidebook or map. Get a few bearings before you venture out of the car.

3. Get an upstairs room. At roadside motels, consider getting a room on the second floor so you can scan the parking lot before heading down to your car. (Personally, I prefer first-floor rooms, so I don't have to lug my gear up the stairs.)

4. Consider the refund policy. If you stop at an inexpensive mom and pop motel, and there is a sign at the check-in counter that says, "No Refunds for Early Check-Out," consider moving on. I speak from experience when I say that is likely that the establishment has some unsavory condition that you won't detect until you're covered with bug bites or awakened in the night by noises too loud to ignore. At the very least, ask to see the room before you pay.

5. Use the truck stops. Travel and truck centers are some of the safest places to stop and rest. They have 24-hour security and professional drivers who are used to staying aware and protective of their vehicles. The only drawback is that they aren't very quiet. You'll have to get used to the "big-rig lullaby," because most drivers leave their engines running even when parked for the night.

6. Chat up the locals. Get local information whenever you can. Coffee shops, hair salons and taverns are all good places to chat casually with residents. Also pick up a local paper or watch the local television news. Being aware of local current events will not only help you have more fun, it can also keep you safe. Participate in the Great American RoadTrip Forum before you leave town to gain a local's perspective about the places you will be driving through.

Road trips are meant to be adventurous and fun. Channel the energy you're spending on that worst-case scenario into some sensible precautions, and you will have a safe, sane and enjoyable trip.

Mark Sedenquist



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