Planning a shopping expedition? Visiting relatives and friends over the festive season? Make sure you don't forget the most important thing: is your car up to surviving the winter weather?
In the cold, wet weather, it's even more important than ever to give your car a thorough check over for safety as well as peace of mind. Of course, if you belong to a breakdown organisation, it's comforting to know that if the worst happens and your vehicle does let you down, help will quickly be on its way. However, the frustrating thing for many members stranded by the roadside is that the breakdown could easily have been avoided.

Ensuring that your car is serviced regularly is one way to avoid all the hassle of a breakdown - not foolproof, of course, but prevention is always better than cure. Tyres should always be carefully checked as worn treads can be lethal - for you and innocent bystanders, as well as other road users. Tyre pressure, too, should be regularly monitored.

One of the most common causes of breakdown is battery failure. Sluggish starting is a sure sign that your car battery is getting old. As soon as starting becomes slow, it's time to think about buying a new battery, especially after a long winter.

Plan Your Route

You don't want to spend half your weekend sitting in traffic. Make sure you plan your route and avoid any potential trouble spots. There are various help lines available - such as the AA Routeplanner.

If you're venturing further afield, make sure you read up on the traffic laws in the countries you're planning to visit. You could be liable for hefty on the spot fines or even time in a foreign jail if you don't. Look out for the RAC's Motoring in Europe guide to help you safely on your way.

Another good idea at home and abroad is to avoid travelling in the middle of the day if (we wish!) it's hot and sunny. Make the journey part of the holiday and stop somewhere nice for lunch - with a play area to let younger passengers unwind before the next leg of the journey. Tired, irritable passengers can distract an equally irritable driver and accidents can result. Oh, and don't mock your partner's map-reading (however much you feel right is on your side). You both want to keep your cool and enjoy the break when you get there...

Children In The Back?

Children are not miniature adults, so if you're travelling with one or more youngsters in the car, take good care that seats and restraints fit properly. Requirements change as the child grows, too, so take expert advice.

Research carried out in the UK by the RAC produced frightening results. About half of children travel in cars unrestrained and two-thirds of child safety seats are fitted incorrectly. Similar trends are in evidence elsewhere in Europe. A group of MEPs are calling for new laws to make a safer child seat - Isofix - mandatory. This plugs into the car seat rather than being held in place by the seatbelt. Though Isofix seats are available now and their fittings are available in some cars, the new laws would force all car makers to adapt their designs to accommodate this type of seat.

An adult seatbelt alone must never be considered as an acceptable restraint for children under the age of 13 - a booster seat with lateral belt-guides is recommended under all circumstances. One with a back and headrest would enable the child to sleep comfortably upright, a boon for the whole family on longer journeys.

What About An Advanced Driving Course?

If you're stuck for future Christmas present ideas, this would be an excellent one. So much of driving is common sense and sheer habit that you stop thinking about it; a gentle prod never goes amiss.

Even aspects of driving as basic as using the accelerator could stand review. The accelerator is a key factor which affects tyre grip, among other things. Its two main functions - acceleration and deceleration - are critical to every aspect of your driving. Yet, excessive speed and violent acceleration are the most common causes of skidding.

By developing a sensitive touch on the throttle, you will enable your vehicle to be better balanced in all situations. Choosing the correct gear, too, is important - many people are guilty of driving in too high a gear, which not only labours the engine and pushes up fuel consumption, but also can reduce the car's response when you accelerate or decelerate.

Young drivers who have just passed their test are particularly vulnerable, simply because they don't have the depth of experience to recognise hazards or to react quickly to difficult situations. That's why 20% of accidents and 25% of all fatal accidents involve novice drivers - who make up only 10% of the driving population.

In response to the Learn and Live campaign, which was set up 10 years ago to give young drivers greater safety on the roads, the 'Pass Plus' scheme was launched in 1993, backed by many insurance companies. It makes provision for a further course of instruction after you pass your test - in return for major insurance premium reductions as a reward. Ask your local driving school for details.


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