August and September are busy months for road trips, with families getting in late-summer vacations and driving kids to college. For many families, that means sometime this month, the car may be packed full with luggage and travel essentials. While it's tempting (and sometimes satisfying) to stuff your car to the gills in order to fit it all, it's neither wise nor safe. Loose items in a car could become dangerous projectiles in an accident or emergency maneuver, plus all that stuff could hamper visibility. The seriousness of this need is highlighted in the accompanying video.
So, how do should you pack your car? Here are some tips:
Just because you own an SUV or minivan, that doesn't mean it can be loaded to the roof. Maximum load capacity, which is the total amount of combined passenger and cargo weight that a vehicle is designed to handle, varies greatly from vehicle to vehicle, even within a model range. The load capacity is specified on a sticker located in the driver's door jamb. For many vehicles, you might find that there isn't much capacity left over once you account for passenger weight. This sticker also contains tire pressure information.
Tire maintenance and pressure are important.
Visually inspect your tires before preparing for a trip. Make sure there are no sidewall bulges and there is no indication of tread damage or extreme wear. Confirm the tires are properly inflated for carrying people and cargo, making adjustments as necessary. If the recommended inflation pressure is not found on the driver's side doorjamb, look inside fuel-filler door, or in the owner's manual — but never on the tire's sidewall.
Position items carefully.
When packing, put the heaviest items as far forward in the cargo area as possible, and keep them on the floor. In all vehicles, and SUVs in particular, it is important to keep the heaviest items toward the center of the vehicle. This technique reduces the potential adverse effect on handling that could be caused by the cargo weight; significant weight at the back could compress the rear springs and reduce the weight over the front wheels, impacting steering and cornering grip. Further, this strategy helps keep the overall center of gravity lower, reducing the likelihood of a rollover.
Clean up and organize.
To prevent items in your car from flying around during a sudden stop, remove any extra trash, especially cans or bottles that could also get lodged under the pedals. Pack smaller items into boxes and strap down larger ones using the car's cargo anchors. Make sure items from the cargo section will not strike passengers in an emergency situation. Don't stack up items too high, as these can become dangerous projectiles in a crash or quick stop.
Keep it low.
Make sure that you don't stack your belongings so high that you can't see out. An obscured rear or rear-side window makes driving difficult and creates considerable risk when reversing.
Keep essentials handy.
Make sure your roadside emergency kit, cell phone, and maps are readily accessible, just in case.
Finally before your trip, do a test by driving slowly in a safe spot, then brake to see if any of the cargo shifts.
For more on driving safely this summer, see our road trips guide.