Johannesburg - The Easter weekend is almost upon us and soon the great South African Holiday Migration will be throwing the politburo into its usual panic as it tries to put a positive spin on the fact that the front-line troops have neither the numbers, the training nor the motivation to contain the havoc on our roads.
So, in much the same way that we take responsibility for our own safety at home with neighbourhood patrols, insurance industry spokesperson Elmarie Twilley, of Virseker, advises that you put your vehicle through your own private roadblock right about now, so that you have time to sort out any problems you do find before it's time to hit the long road.
“That means not only driving more cautiously,” she said, “but also making sure your car is in tip-top condition - many crashes are caused by cars not being roadworthy.
“Also, you definitely don't want to be stranded at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere - that will make you vulnerable to criminals.”
WHAT SHOULD YOU BE LOOKING FOR?
Reverse up close to a light-coloured wall after sunset and look over your shoulder as you hit the brakes and operate the indicators for a quick, easy and foolproof tail-light check that doesn't require getting out of the car or the assistance of a second person.
Then turn round and do the same for the front indicators and headlights - main beam and dips! Make sure that headlamps are adjusted correctly - as a rough guide the upper edge of the (dipped) light beam should be no higher than the bonnet of the car.
Walk round the car and make sure that all body panels, mountings and accessories - including the tow bar, if you have one - are properly fastened and tight.
The same applies to any load your car may be carrying. As you load, use the bathroom scale to check the weight of each item and get the kids to keep a running total (their maths is almost certainly better than yours) to make sure the car isn't overloaded.
Check all the windows for cracks or small chips; a damaged windscreen not only reduces visibility, but also has limited ability to protect you in adverse conditions or in a crash.
Get the kids to turn the garden hose on the car (they'll love this!) and check that the wiper blades and their mechanisms are making a clean sweep every time.
Wheels and tyres
Open the boot (before you pack a long weekend's worth of luggage in there) and check that the spare wheel is in good condition, inflated to the correct pressure and that the tyre actually has some tread on it. Check that you have the right jack and a wheel-brace that fits your wheel fastenings.
Then go round and check that all the wheel fastenings are tight; watching a wheel bouncing off into the veld is funny in the movies, but not when it happens to you.
While you're up close and personal with each wheel, check that it's inflated to the right pressure and has at least 3mm of tread all the way round; yes, the law says 1mm but anything less than 3mm will not keep rainwater from getting between the tyre and road at 120km/h. When that happens, its called aquaplaning and it's the automotive equivalent of trying to run across an ice-rink in worn-out sneakers.
If the tread has bald patches, have your local fitment centre balance the wheels and check the shock absorbers; if it's bald all the way round on the edges, it's under-inflated and if it's bald on one side only, have the fitment centre check the wheel alignment.
When you put the wheel-brace back in the boot, chuck in a block of wood about the size of a family bible; if you have to change a wheel on the gravel shoulder of the national road you'll thank heaven for it.
Under the bonnet.
Check the oil level - twice, at least five days apart. If you can see the difference, have a competent mechanic check whether the car is leaking or burning oil, and take appropriate action.
Check the coolant system when the engine is cold. Pop off the radiator cap and check that it seals properly and check that the level of coolant is up to the MIN mark on the plastic reservoir.
If not, replenish with clean tap water that has stood for at least 24 hours for the chlorine to evaporate or, if you're anal about such things, a 50/50 mix of anti-freeze and distilled (battery water) - both available at your local supermarket.
Check that the coolant is clean; if the reservoir looks like it's full of mud, chances are the radiator is too; have it flushed before you leave town.
Check the windscreen washer bottle; there's nothing worse than peering into the setting sun through a windscreen coated with second-hand bugs. If it's low, fill it with clean tap water and one small squirt of dishwasher; that's all it needs.
Check that the level of brake fluid in the master cylinder is up to the MIN mark.
If not, replenish from a fresh bottle of brake fluid and, when you get back from the coast, discard whatever's left. Once a sealed container is opened, brake fluid absorbs water vapour from the air and rapidly becomes dangerous to use - storing it for 'next time' is not a good idea.
If the battery is not of the sealed type, open each cell and eyeball the level: if the top edge of the plates is above the water, replenish with the distilled water you bought for the radiator (no antifreeze this time!). The actual level is not critical, as long as the plates are covered.
Check all the belts you can see; as a general rule, if you can move it more than the width of your thumb, it needs adjustment (time to dig out the owner's handbook) and if you can see any visible fraying at all, that's a disaster waiting to happen - have it replaced pronto.
Visually check the engine compartment for leaks, and add up how many kilometres you will drive before you get back home. If it will take you past the next service point, have the car serviced before you leave.
Sneak off to the mall at the crack of dawn on a weekday when the car park is empty, get your car rolling at about 60km/h in the middle of the car park and hit the brakes as hard as you can.
If the car pulls to one side, the steering wheel vibrates, or you hear any knocking or grinding noises, have the brakes, suspension and wheel alignment checked. If the car rocks like a noddy dog after a violent stop, have the shock absorbers checked .
Ask the kids to listen under the car for any puffing noises (other than from the hole in the end!) coming from the exhaust pipe. A damaged exhaust system not only cuts power and increases fuel consumption, but if it leaks exhaust fumes into the cabin it can knock you out before you even smell it.
At 120km/h this can be very hazardous to your health.
Keep a decent-sized flashlight and a safety triangle in the car (not under a long weekend's worth of luggage in the boot) to warn oncoming traffic when your car has broken down. Don't rely on your hazard lights; if your car has an electrical gremlin they may not be working.
Check that your insurance and your breakdown plan are up to date and keep all those emergency numbers on a card in the glove compartment. Yes, we know they're on speed dial on your smart new phone but if the kids have run its battery flat playing video games you may be calling from somebody else's phone.
Your car is not the only thing that needs to be roadworthy.
The most important safety component in any vehicle is the one holding the steering wheel.
Get enough sleep before you start a long road trip.
“Fatigue is a major cause of road accidents,” Twilley pointed out, “so if you're not well, sleepy or not up to the drive, it's worth delaying it for safety reasons.”
Before you pull out of the driveway, adjust the seat and steering wheel to a comfortable position; if you need to use a pillow to support your back to avoid back pain, then do it. Wear comfortable shoes that are suitable for driving - not loose sandals that could slip off your feet if you suddenly have to brake.
Take a break every two hours or so to keep alert. Driving through the night isn't heroic, it's stupid.
While you're on the road, keep your energy levels up by snacking on healthy fruit and other nutritious food and staying hydrated with water. Sugary junk-food snacks may give you a quick boost but the sudden let-down can be a killer.
Twilley added: “Decent sunglasses to block out the glare are essential and will also prevent eye fatigue.”
Here's her final tip - and we'll bet it's one you didn't think of:
“Know where you're going.
“Planning your route and knowing exactly how to get there reduces family stress and lets you concentrate on driving - and arriving - safely.”