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TAKING THE KIDS

Car Trips Don't Have to Drive Families Crazy : Rest stops and goodies for children and driver alike can make a long journey fun. But don't let down your guard on safety.

August 15, 1993|EILEEN OGINTZ

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 some Tootsie Roll pops--for my husband and me . . . not for 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 a cherry Tootsie Roll pop, his favorite, and replayed the tape, an audio version of the TV show "Dinosaurs." When we were still driving at midnight one night, I grabbed a chocolate pop (I'm the only one who will eat them) 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. They are a lot less expensive than flying. Whether you're traveling for a weekend or a month, they give you a chance to kick back a little and show your children the country. Today, especially, when many busy families don't even eat dinner together, a car trip can provide the opportunity they've been waiting for to talk to one another. And remember: Even the worst times make for funny memories, later.

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As Americans continue to watch their budgets, car trips are more popular than ever. This summer, a record 190 million Americans are expected to take to the roads--accounting for 82% of all summer vacation trips, according to American Automobile Assn. projections. So why do many parents talk about them in the same way they do chicken pox? It's all a matter of attitude and planning, with the kids in mind.

"Adapt to the kids' schedules and you'll do fine," said 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 eating at regular meal times and breaking up the trip with frequent stops so they 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 can also break up the tedium. After our family spent a couple of afternoons horseback riding, we bought a family of plastic horses in Wyoming, augmented by two tiny buffalo from the Black Hills. They were the perfect antidote to back-seat boredom on a recent trip.

Deb Davis, a mother of five who lives in Genoa, Ill., swears by the roadside picnic strategy. "Expecting children to travel all day and behave in restaurants is too much," she explained. That's why 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 said when her family travels from their Santa Fe, N.M., home to visit relatives in California and Missouri, she always plans short sightseeing stops along the way. "Even stopping at a 7-Eleven for a pack of gum is an adventure for kids," she said.

Stops are all the more important for children prone to car sickness. They also do better if they haven't eaten a heavy meal and are encouraged to look outside.

But no matter what, don't let the kids ride--even for a few minutes--unless they are securely buckled in a seat belt or car seat. I've heard all the excuses: "I can't sleep." "The shoulder belt is too tight." Two-year-old Melanie simply shrieks, "Get out! Now!"

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If you're tempted to give in, consider these statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.: Seat belts saved more than 5,000 lives last year, car seats 268.

And they could save more. More than 200 children could be saved, and about 20,000 injuries prevented in young children each year, if everyone under 5 used a child's safety seat, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. research. Even though car seats now are required in all 50 states, they are not always used--or used correctly--experts explain.

"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," said Orlansky, who serves on the American Academy of Pediatrics' SafeRide Committee.

"Car crashes are the major cause of death and injuries in young children," added Armitage, who is also a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Too often, babies are placed in rear-facing seats facing 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. (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," Armitage said.

"It's hard to remember to put kids in seat belts all of the time and check them," Armitage acknowledged. "But once you make it a habit, you'll do it without thinking."

Just don't forget to buckle up yourself. And make sure you've stashed the lollipops within easy reach.

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