Road Trip America: Heading for the Highway on Labor Day

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 25, 2014

Road trip! I still love those words. Like many a suburban family in the post-war era, that’s the way we took vacations—long drives in sweltering cars, because only rich people had air-conditioning.

The whole kit and caboodle piles in for a road trip, minus the seatbelts and airbags.We’ve got the peak travel of Labor Day Weekend coming up—AAA says 34.7 million will be on the road. I’m getting ready. Last week we made a 3.5-hour pilgrimage to upstate New York (in a highly recommended Ford C-Max hybrid) to visit an electric boat company at Lake George, and this week (in a commodious Ford Flex) we drove another 3.5 hours to Tufts University near Boston to drop off my daughter at college.

I don’t remember roads being this congested, but otherwise the experience hasn’t changed much. I still love the phrase “service plaza,” much classier than “rest stop.” I seem to recall them done up like log cabins back in the old days.

Is that a particularly glamorous grandma with Junior in the back seat?The food might have been better at those old service plazas, but don’t feel nostalgic about those ancient road trips—as Jay Leno likes to point out, the idea of safety in 1950s cars was a strap to grab onto. Knobs shaped like daggers, no seat belts, no airbags, and plenty of blowouts and breakdowns. Tires were terrible in the good ol’ days!

Today, according to a new Peak Auto telephone poll, Americans still love road trips, but only 35 percent of Americans expect to experience some kind of car trouble along the way. Worrying about breakdowns gets us into battle of the sexes territory: It’s 41 percent for women, compared to 32 percent for “What me worry?” men. From the “it figures” department—men are “significantly more likely” to say they’re knowledgeable about cars “across the board.”

The best part of the trip in the 50s was the arrival--at "the lake" in this case. It goes without saying that women are more likely to prepare their cars for traveling.
Some of the other findings are a bit predictable:
  • 64 percent “expect bathroom stops to impact the experience.” Ah c’mon, how could they not? That’s one part of the road trip that never changes.
  • 78 percent “enjoy passing the time watching movies, reading or listening to music.” Sure, but aren’t we turning into little private islands these days, as Robert Putnam explores in his book Bowling Alone? Back in the day, everyone sang along to whatever was on the radio, now they’re plugged into headphones. Not the same communal experience!
  • Only 43 percent say they know much about spark plugs and wires, and 47 percent about braking systems. That stands to reason, because this kind of stuff isn’t user serviceable these days. But seven of 10 say they can change wiper blades or tires, and 64 percent “are knowledgeable about antifreeze and coolant.” I guess that means they know to not run pure water on a freezing day.

The Merritt Parkway around, what, 1957? (Connecticut DOT photo)Oddly, one of the things Americans worry about most (64 percent) on car trips is “an engine blowout,” which is not one of your more likely scenarios. But it feeds into the nightmare image of being stranded by the side of the road, at night, in the rain, as traffic whizzes past. Remember, though, we have cell phones and OnStar-type services now. We're also concerned about hitting animals (70 percent), locking keys in the car (50 percent women/36 percent men) and getting into a car accident (80 percent overall). Happy motoring!

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