Michelle Morton found a way to minimize traffic in her holiday drive from North Carolina to New York: Pack up the family and hit the road around 3 a.m.
Morton finds that her three boys are easier to load into the car at that hour, rather than waiting for them to wake up and get going on their own. Morton says her family has now been doing the early-morning holiday trek for almost 15 years.
While waking up at that time can be difficult, Morton says the family has grown used to the routine.
"It's actually kind of nice to have the quiet time to talk, and we enjoy watching the sun come up as we drive," she says. And everyone enjoys arriving at their destination with part of the day still ahead.
Many families find that leaving pre-dawn or after dusk is an effective way to avoid congested roadways and knock off some miles while children sleep.
Families that often make nighttime road trips and are in the market for a new vehicle may want to consider safety features that improve nighttime driving, such as adaptive headlights, night vision technology and driver attention assist technology.
Whether in a new car or an old familiar one, here are some tips on how to keep night drives safe and comfortable.
Prepare Your Auto
Before any road trip, your first step should be to make sure your car is road-trip ready. Wintertime trips take some special care. And with nighttime driving ahead, be sure your headlights are working and adjusted and that your windows, mirrors and lights are clean. Ensure that you have a working flashlight and fresh batteries.
Be Extra Cautious
While there's less traffic during the late-night and early-morning hours, night driving is riskier. The reason is that a greater number of impaired drivers are on the road, due to both alcohol and night-vision problems, according to Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research for the AAA national office in Washington. You'll need to be extra alert to how other drivers are behaving and prepared to avert trouble.
Drowsy driving is a national problem, according to the National Sleep Foundation's Sleep in America poll, which reports that 60 percent of Americans have driven while drowsy, and 37 percent admit to falling asleep at the wheel.
While it's best to keep to your normal sleep cycles, planning ahead can help prevent problems on the occasional off-hours drive.
"Getting good sleep the nights before the journey is critical," says Dr. Alon Y. Avidan, director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center. "Sleep deprivation is a strong predictor of feeling drowsy, and could put people at risk for fall-asleep accidents."
If you feel drowsiness coming on while you're driving, never try to ignore it.
"Taking a break from driving, or alternating drivers when feeling sleepy is important," says Avidan, who suggests that drivers pull over, park safely and get a 15-20-minute power nap.
He also stresses what won't work: turning up the radio, opening the window for cold air or splashing water on your face.
Caffeinated drinks can play a part in keeping you alert.
Coffee "temporarily relieves sleepiness and restores performance after one night of sleep deprivation," says Avidan. "It takes effect within 15-30 minutes of consumption, and the effect lasts for four to five hours."
There are downsides, he adds. "Coffee can reduce the quality of sleep you get, and it is possible to develop a tolerance."
Consume caffeine in moderation: too much and you may find it difficult to unwind upon arrival. It can also make more frequent bathroom stops a necessity.
Healthy Food and Drink
It may be tempting to munch on sweets to keep a lengthy ride interesting, but that can lead to a crash in blood sugar levels, potentially triggering irritability and sleepiness.
You'll get more mileage from foods that will maintain your energy level, such as the complex carbohydrates found in whole grain crackers. Fruit provides natural sweetness rather than heaps of processed sugar. Quick, healthy sources of protein include dried fruits and nuts. Plan ahead and package food in containers that are easy to open and close.
Don't avoid liquids in hopes of bypassing rest stops. Dehydration leads to sleepiness, confusion or irritability, so an even intake of fluids is important. Plus, the occasional rest stop allows you to stretch and get some fresh air.
Consider Children's Needs
A dark drive often lulls children to nap, which is a benefit on long and boring rides. But kids are unpredictable. Excitement over the adventure may keep them wide awake. Always pack your usual survival gear for a road trip: books on tape, movies, CDs, age-appropriate lap toys and self-service snacks.
Children will rest better when they're warm, but cranking the heat can make the driver sleepy also, cautions James Solomon, director of defensive driving program development and training at the National Safety Council in Itasca, Illinois. "Throw some blankets in the back for the passengers," he suggests.
Scan for Animals
You may feel like it's just you and the highway, but animals are everywhere during nighttime hours. Many animals become active at dawn and dusk, while nocturnal critters are up and prowling for dinner throughout the night.
"If you see signs posted for deer or moose, these animals have been killed in that area," says Solomon. Be alert in the area where signs are posted and a couple miles after them. He also recommends being cautious when traveling in national parks or near waterways.
Be Ready for Daybreak
It's easy to lose track of time as the miles go by, but don't let daybreak take you by surprise. When you're packing the car at night, put sunglasses within the driver's reach. Expect an increase in traffic as you near the morning rush hour. If you are navigating urban areas, watch for increased pedestrian, bicycle or school bus activity.
Changes in temperature can also affect driving conditions. "When the sun comes up in a cool morning, you may come up over a hill and find fog or haze," says Solomon. "Be ready to slow down, and keep your low beams on."
When You Arrive
When planning your arrival time, consider how well your children bounce back from disruptions in routine. Thurston Miller — a father of four from South Bend, Indiana, who has made holiday commutes to Minnesota — avoids heading straight into holiday festivities after a long drive.
While the roads are wide open on holidays, "we are very sleepy when we see the family," he says. "The children are not well rested, and it's difficult for the parents," who may be sleep deprived themselves.
Miller recommends an early departure a day before the holiday to give everyone time to recuperate when they arrive.
Driving at odd hours can minimize holiday travel aggravations, and being prepared will make the experience more pleasurable for everyone.