Steer Clear of Carpool Obstacles

By the end of each school year, most family cars have served as a home on wheels: a study for homework and frantic cram sessions; a dining room for an unfortunate number of snacks and meals; a bedroom during early morning drives to school; and a family room for discussions, I Spy games or arguments over who gets to pick the radio station.

As another carpool season approaches, it’s prime time to begin cleaning out, spiffing up and checking on the family vehicles that transport children to and from school, events and practices. Keeping kids safe and reasonably well-cared for, both the ones who call you mom or dad and the ones who call you misses or mister, takes a reasonable amount of prep work. But driving a carpool that’s safe, calm and fun — even if a little messy — makes the effort worthwhile.

Safety First

Of course, the first priority of carpooling is safety, and a lot of that is common sense. Tom Crosby, vice president of communications for AAA Carolinas, has a whole list of carpool suggestions. Some of them are:

•Check government crash safety ratings if you’re in the market for a new car. The higher the rating, the better.

•Make sure the maintenance on the vehicle you drive, from oil to tires, is up to date with “a general check-up to make sure nothing’s gone awry,” Crosby says. “People should be doing that anyway.”

•Have a list of emergency contact numbers for the kids riding with you, and, if you’ll be taking a new route this year, test drive it at the proper time the day before school starts. “Once you know the way and are familiar with it, you’ll be a lot safer driver,” he says.

•Make sure safety seats are properly installed. According to national surveys, about 90 percent are not, according to Crosby. If you’re not sure, the folks at your local AAA office, area hospitals and public safety departments regularly hold clinics where they’ll check and help with proper installation.

•Carry an emergency kit in case your car breaks down, including emergency triangles, Crosby recommends. He also suggests checking with your insurance ahead of time to make sure you’re properly covered.

•Turn the car off if you’re going to be idling more than a couple of minutes in the carpool line. Crosby says you, the environment and the health of the kids waiting to be loaded will probably benefit.

•One Crosby didn’t mention but worth remembering: Once the kids start filing out, put down the cell phone. Really. Take a few moments to find out how your kids’ day went, give them your undivided attention, and set a good example.

Calm Carpools

Driving the carpool of calm rather than the carpool of chaos is easier on everyone. This doesn’t necessarily mean silence. When other children are in the car, parents become invisible, and all sorts of valuable information may be discussed. That said, discussion is different than whining, so to minimize the latter, stock up on certain supplies that may not be needed but are invaluable in a pinch.

•A well-fed carpool is a happy carpool. That doesn’t have to mean stopping for meals, but try keeping some nonperishables handy, like granola bars or individual packets of crackers. There is nothing worse than listening to the chorale version of “I’m starving!” while stuck in traffic on I-40.

•An extra clean, dry shirt can be a life saver. Not only as a replacement for a sweaty practice jersey, but also for quick transitions to after-school activities when you run out of time to get home.

•Extend your emergency kit to include a roll of paper towels, sanitizing hand gel and a pack of hand wipes. Messes are inevitable. The quicker they can be cleaned up, the better. A basic first aid kit is also a good idea. Sometimes all you need is a bandage to make everyone feel better.

•Set rules and stick with them. This might be something related to safety, such as everyone wearing a seatbelt regardless of what they claim to do in mom and dad’s car. Or it can be something courtesy-related. Certain types of music might not be allowed on the radio.

Make It Fun

That’s right. Fun. Carpools can be. Parents spend a lot of time in cars with kids, so rather than suffering, look for ways to enjoy it. If that means the nondrivers read a book, that’s wonderful. Some days the radio cooperates, and there’s enough good music to get everyone home with a smile. But if you’re looking for something more creative, columnist Rachel Mostow, on the Web site www.momready.com, offers some additional suggestions:

•Try Wacky Wednesday. Based on a Dr. Seuss book, it became a weekly ritual when Mostow drove. In the morning, each passenger had to report one wacky thing that had happened recently. For afternoon carpool, each participant found a treat in their seat. It might be a home-baked goody, a bag of popcorn or a dime-store toy. In keeping with the wackiness, the kids could never predict the treat.

•On any of the rider’s birthdays, decorate the van for a celebration, including a small party favor for each rider.

•For New Music Mondays, treat the kids to some music they aren’t likely to have heard, and on Open Mike Day, let them take turns telling jokes.

As you head out the door on the way to school, whether you’re only driving your family or picking up a couple more children, be safe, stay calm and have fun. And if your car gets messy in the process, that may be a sign that your passengers are having a good time.

Aleta Payne freely admits to driving the “messy carpool.” She is the associate editor of Carolina Parent.

Top Priority: Safety

Carpooling with kids can be fun and funny, but it should also be serious when it comes to safety. The School Transportation Group at N.C. State University’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education has compiled the following information that reinforces the message that arriving safely is the top priority:

– About 800 school-age children are killed annually during school travel hours, according to the National Academies Transportation Research Board. Of those deaths, 74 percent were in private passenger vehicles and 22 percent are the result of bicycle accidents, making private transportation more risky than traveling by bus.

– According to the National Research Council, North Carolina ranks fifth in the nation in school-age fatalities involving private vehicles.

– Nationally, school buses transport 22.5 million riders per year on 457,000 buses traveling 7 billion miles. Bus riders average fewer than 20 fatalities per year.

– In a review of 20 schools in North Carolina, the School Transportation Group found that a key mistake parents make is arriving on campus too early, which causes cars to back up. Jeff Tsai, director of STG, estimates that 60 percent of parents arrive before the optimal time to pick up children at the end of the school day. Those parents average three times the wait of carpooling parents who arrive shortly after the dismissal time. The wait is both bad for the environment because of emissions when idling and can contribute to impatient drivers.

– Parents don’t always follow the carpool rules, Tsai adds. They may try to circumnavigate the school’s plan for drop off and pick up, which can be extremely dangerous as children make their way from the building to the parking lot.

For more information about school transportation, visit www.itre.ncsu.edu/stg.