Thank goodness there's no law against driving and eating lollipops.
Whenever things got particularly rough on our recent cross-country car trip, I pulled out the candy. For us, not the kids.
"Not again," my husband groaned when the back-of-the-van chorus demanded the same story tape for what seemed like the 500th time.
I just handed him his favorite cherry lollipop and played the tape, an audio version of the TV show "Dinosaurs." When we were still driving at midnight, I grabbed a chocolate pop and reminded myself that getting there is supposed to be half the fun.
Of course, there's a lot to be said for family car trips.
Whether you're traveling for a weekend or a month, they give you a chance to kick back a little and show the kids the country. Even the worst times make for funny memories later. And these days, when many busy families don't even eat dinner together, a car trip can provide the opportunity to talk to one another.
And they're a lot less expensive than flying. As Americans continue to watch their budgets, car trips are more popular than ever. This summer, a record 190 million Americans were expected to take to the roads -- accounting for 82 percent of all summer vacation trips, the American Automobile Association reports.
To avoid thinking of car trips the same way you do chicken pox is a matter of attitude -- and planning with the kids in mind.
"Adapt to the kids' schedules and you'll do fine," says Dr. Stanley Orlansky, a Rockland County, N.Y., pediatrician and veteran of many family car trips, including a 9,000-mile cross-country marathon. "Don't expect them to adapt to yours."
That means eat at their regular meal times and break up the trip with frequent stops so the kids can burn off some energy. One friend carries a big ball so her boys can play catch whenever they stop. (The exercise helps perk up the grown-ups, too, she reports.)
Inexpensive souvenirs bought along the way also can ease the tedium. After a couple of afternoons spent horseback riding, a family of plastic horses bought in Wyoming augmented by two tiny buffalo from the Black Hills were the perfect antidote to back-seat boredom on our recent trip.
Deb Davis, a mother of five in Genoa, Ill., swears by the roadside picnic strategy. "Expecting children to travel all day and behave in restaurants is too much," she says. She keeps a small cooler stocked with sandwich fixings. "Sometimes the kids climb a tree and eat their sandwich up there. They spend most of the time running, and that helps tremendously when they get back in the car."
Dr. Karen Armitage, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, says when her family travels from their Santa Fe, N.M., home to visit relatives in California and Missouri, she always picks out some short sightseeing stops along the way. "Remember that even stopping at a 7-Eleven for a pack of gum is an adventure for kids," she says.
Stops are more important for children prone to car sickness, she says. They also do better if they haven't eaten a heavy meal and are encouraged to look outside.
No matter what, though, don't let the kids ride without being securely buckled in a seat belt or car seat -- even if they're only in the car for a few minutes. I've heard all the excuses, too: "I can't sleep." "The shoulder belt is too tight." Two-year-old Melanie simply shrieks, "GET OUT NOW!"
If you're tempted to give in once in a while on a long car trip, consider these statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board: Seat belts saved more than 5,000 lives last year; car seats saved 268.
But more than 200 children could be saved -- and about 20,000 injuries prevented each year among young children -- if every child younger than 5 used an approved child safety seat, according to the NHTSB. Even though car seats now are required in all 50 states, they are not always used, or used correctly.
"I still see parents riding with a child in their lap and kids in the back of pickup trucks. I see kids asleep without seat belts. All of this is very dangerous," says Dr. Orlansky, who serves on the American Academy of Pediatrics' SafeRide Committee. "Car crashes are the major cause of death and injuries in young children," Dr. Armitage adds.
Too often, babies are placed in rear-facing seats turned around toward the front of the car. Others are strapped into a car seat that isn't secured with a seat belt. Older children may have their seat belts too loose or across their bellies rather than low on their hips. (Remember that shoulder belts always provide more protection.)
"If a kid can wriggle out, it's not going to do much good in the force of a crash," says Dr. Armitage.
To help promote car-seat use, every Midas muffler and brake shop in the country now is offering car seats at a wholesale cost of $42.
"It's hard to remember to put kids in seat belts all of the time and check them," acknowledges Dr. Armitage. "But once you make it a habit, you'll do it without thinking."
+ Los Angeles Times Syndicate