Fall MaintenanceClick to enlarge picture

After the hectic days of summer, the fall is a good time to preform preventative vehicle maintenance.

While August is the peak month for fatal vehicle crashes, according to traffic safety facts published by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the rate of fatal accidents based on miles driven is the highest in September, and remains at virtually the same rate through December.

A total of 3,523 people died and 173,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes during August 2001— the last year for which monthly numbers are available from the federal government. The total number of vehicle crashes peaked in December 2001 at 578,000.

More vehicles miles are driven during the summer months, resulting in a greater total number of fatalities and injuries. There is a great chance that you may be involved in a crash that results in a fatality or injuries during the fall or winter months.

The fall is no time to take a vacation from safety. Here are MSN Autos' tips on how to keep you—and those who ride with you during these darker, colder months—safe.

Engine Drive Belts—Engine drive belts operate important parts attached to your engine, such as the alternator, water pump and air conditioner compressor. Belts should be checked for cracks, dry rot, glazing, uneven wear or frayed edges, and replaced if wear is detected. "If these belts slip or break it could mean a breakdown, engine overheating, or loss of power steering," Chidsey cautioned. The condition of the timing belt is also important, because if the timing belt breaks, it could cause immediate and potentially expensive internal engine damage.

Lights—Winter days are short and headlights are often used even during daylight hours, so it is important to make sure all of your vehicle lights are in good working order. Be sure to check the headlights, taillights, turn signals, fog lights and brake lights.

Exhaust System—Be sure your system is working properly and is free from leaks.

Air Conditioning—The air conditioning is often used by the climate control system during the winter to dehumidify the air in defrost mode. And even if you don't use the air conditioning during the cold months it is important to remember to turn the system on occasionally so that all the components remain properly lubricated and will work in the spring. Be sure the compressor is working properly and isn't making strange noises. This could indicate a compressor that's about to die. Ensure that your system has enough refrigerant.

Managing Stress Is Important
Be sure to leave plenty of time to get to your destination. Don't wait until the last second to head out, and plan your travel time realistically. To check local traffic conditions, use MSN Autos' Live Traffic page—one of the many helpful services of the My Car feature on MSN Autos.

Before that long drive, get in the proper frame of mind by practicing stress-management techniques. When you sit down in the driver seat, take a moment before starting the car. Take deep breaths, not shallow ones. Pull the air in deeply, hold it a second or two, and then exhale long and strongly. Use your diaphragm.

As you clear your lungs and body of bad air, clear your mind of your stresses. Resolve not to think of them while you're in the car. Instead, pledge to focus on the drive and your responsibility behind the wheel to keep yourself and everyone else in the car safe. Consider turning off that cell phone while you're in the car, too, so you can avoid distractions and further stress—and listen to relaxing tunes.

As you drive, be sure to look far down the road, not just at the bumper of the vehicle in front of you. This will help you better control your car by giving you a view of what's ahead. It also will help you prepare for sudden stops or traffic backups.

When driving conditions get wet or slippery, don't forget to leave some extra stopping distance between your car and the car in front of you.

Carry Emergency Gear
It is especially important to carry emergency gear during the winter. A breakdown can occur at any time, and it's best to be prepared.

A basic emergency kit should include a blanket, flashlight, rags, a red cloth or flag and reflective warning signs. You should also carry bottled water, extra coolant, extra oil, and for the winter months, an extra coat and boots.

Extra food is good, too, especially if you're traveling with youngsters. Don't forget to bring the cell phone and an extra phone battery.

The Fatigue Factor
Don't drive if you're drowsy. Take regular breaks every couple of hours if you need them; the kids may need breaks too. Share the driving, if possible, with someone new at the wheel every three hours, according to safety experts.

At least ten percent of drowsy drivers speed while driving, according to an official at the National Sleep Foundation in Washington, D.C.. He said, there's a tendency to be irritable and impatient at the wheel when you're fatigued.

There are even worse consequences if you fall asleep while driving, of course. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates at least 100,000 crashes, 71,000 injuries and 1,500 deaths each year in the United States are the result of drivers falling asleep.

You know that you're fatigued when you start drifting from your lane, hitting rumble strips, yawning repeatedly, having difficulty focusing or keeping your eyes open, missing road signs or tailgating.

One additional note from the Sleep Foundation: Don't assume just because your teenager is young that he or she has plenty of energy to drive alertly. A report from the foundation says today's teens need 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep a night but are getting far less. A typical 19-year-old, for example, averages only seven hours and 4 minutes of sleep per night.

The foundation estimates that half of the 100,000 crashes each year that are attributed to sleepy drivers involve young drivers.

Adhere to Safe Driving Practices
Don't drink and drive, and remember that lack of sleep can heighten alcohol's effect on you. If you're tired, one drink can feel like four or five. Review your medications, too. Be sure they don't impair your ability to drive.

Make sure you and all your passengers are properly buckled before you start the vehicle. Adjust vehicle head restraints to just about even with the top of the ears of each passenger. In this position and locked into place, the restraints can provide protection during a rear-end crash.

Keep children age 12 and under in the back seat, away from frontal airbags that may cause injury or death to little ones. Be sure they're seated safely, as needed, in child seats or on booster seats.

Secure heavy suitcases and packages so that they don't become dangerous projectiles in a crash.

Keep your gas tank full. It may be necessary for you to change routes along the way, or you may be caught in a traffic delay caused by weather conditions, a crash, or simply heavy holiday traffic.

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