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Split-second decisions

Split-second decisions

No matter how long your summer drive takes, a moment of indecision is all it takes for a joyful trip to head south

Summer is upon us, and we all know what that means for us harried city folk—the chance to de-stress, re-charge, and re-bond with our friends and family by way of those long, cross-country road trips. And while we may imagine being on the road, destined to our dream destinations, would be a joyful experience, we should never forget the reality that traveling always poses a risk.

The moment you drive out of your garage and onto the roads, your life, and those of your passengers, “are on the lane.” Every split-second decision you make when driving can spell the difference between a trip filled with fond memories and one that ends in a horrible tragedy.

And those split-decisions will have to be made by all of us, one way or another, in the course of our lives as drivers—or even as passengers. For me, that split-second decision happened 9 years ago, and I still remember it like it was yesterday.

I was driving a 4×4 Toyota Hilux pickup in Tinglayan, Kalinga, with 4 passengers. I was the middle vehicle in a convoy of three 4×4 pickups (the other two were a Mazda BT50 and a Chevrolet Colorado). Our party of 14 were bringing computer equipment, school supplies, educational materials, and vegan goodies to Luplupa Elementary School in Kalinga for an outreach project initiated by my colleagues in the Inquirer.

It was the middle of the night. Pitch dark. The narrow one-lane dirt road had no barriers to separate us from the hundred-foot ravine that ran along the winding mountain trail. We were already more than 12 hours into the trip from the office in Makati.

I came upon a tight left turn. The Hilux’s front right tire dug into the eroding road’s outer edge. I quickly stepped on the brakes—just in time because, as my passengers found out to their horror after alighting and checking the front end—that tire was suspended in mid-air, hanging above a 300-foot drop. I calmly but firmly engaged to 4L and lurched the Hilux forward and leftward until all four tires were on firm ground. Nothing to it, I told my passengers as they got back inside the cabin, quite shaken by the experience.

In hindsight, I thought, what if, at the time, I was sleepy behind the wheel? What if I was driving more than 20 kph on that dark dirt road? What if my body was there, but my senses weren’t? So many bad decisions could have seen us crashing down hundreds of feet, and I wouldn’t be here to tell you this story.

The point is: Any vehicle, even if it’s in good running condition, needs a driver “in better running condition” to optimize a successful trip. It’s non-negotiable.

In my 30 years of driving experience, I’ve learned that that “better running condition” is a result of a combination of sound driving habits: Being well-rested before the trip; being well-hydrated; the mind is not clouded by other worries to distract the driver, and most importantly; the driver is aware of his or her limitations and will act responsibly whenever he or she feels sleepy or tired.

Our group took its time to drive those 900 kms or so from Makati to Tinglayan and back. Whenever one driver felt sleepy, we all stopped and parked at a safe place to take a “power nap” of around 30 minutes to an hour. During the day, we stopped every two or three hours to have some coffee or simply stretch our legs and arms (oh, and take in the magnificent views of the central and northern Luzon provinces).

So, dear readers, I hope you won’t think of me as a killjoy of sorts. But, truly, the first step to a joyful road trip is to be safe. There will be lots of “revenge trips” this summer. It’s the first summer since 2019 that the specter of the pandemic seems so far over the horizon. You will encounter lots of other motorists on the country roads—many of them eager to arrive at their destinations, many of them being their first time to drive outside the city.

If your mind and body is in the right mindset for those long drives, then checking your car to make sure it’s in good running condition should be a cinch. So, here’s a quick reminder:

BLOWBAGET. That means, check your Battery, Lights, Oil, Water, Brake, Air, Gas, Engine, and Tires. By the way, Honda Cars Philippines Inc. offers its safety checkup for free (and a 10-percent discount on recommended parts for replacement of battery, light bulb, coolant, brake pad/shoe, brake fluid, aircon filter, shock absorber, serpentine belt and tires). There’s no shame in this plug, knowing that it could save the life of a driver and his or her entire family on a road trip.

Here’s a few more quick car tips to do before you go on your long road trips:

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Check your coolant level and drive belts, too.

Take the car out for a long run once in a while, and not just for short journeys.

Check how the brake pedal “plays.” Step on it and slowly press down. How does the pedal feel under your foot? Does it feel spongy or different from the usual? Does the pedal sink slowly to the floor? If so, have it checked immediately.

Check your spare tires, as well. Is it still there, and with adequate tire pressure? Remember: Tires, in general, have a shelf life of five years before the rubber begins to deteriorate, even for the ones that aren’t in use.

Inflate your tires to the maximum allowable pressure to prevent the rims from being damaged. Every now and then, check if your wheels are aligned.

Always have in the car the following: Reflectorized vest for road visibility, in case you have to get out of the vehicle during a roadside emergency; contact numbers of ambulances, hospitals, and police; important personal information (including any drug allergies, medical condition, etc., and the contact number of your closest kin), and emergency lights with early warning device.

Happy summer driving, everyone!