How To Drive Through the Desert Safely

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Wrecked car in the desert, Valley of Shattered Dreams.
Wrecked car in the Valley of Shattered Dreams. Image credit: John Fowler. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Planning to spend your vacation touring the deserts of the American West? Moving your household to a sunny town in red rock and cactus country? Driving on desert roads and highways has its own set of dangers. For instance, each year an average of thirty-seven kids left unattended in motor vehicles die from heatstroke, according to San Jose State University.i

Follow these safety tips to better enjoy your time in the sun.

Prepare for storms

Heat isn’t your only enemy in the desert and great storms don’t always occur in winter. Sudden, massive rainfalls occasionally race across the landscape, such as the summer “monsoons” of southern Arizona. Typically, “the streets are super slick for the first ten or fifteen minutes because the oil buildup hasn’t had a chance to run off,” says Valerie Vinyard, a spokesperson for AAA Arizona.

They will also flood low spots in the road, such as between hilltops or through a creek bed. If you see water, don’t try to cross it. Only two feet of depth can sweep your car — and you — downstream with the flood.

Desert storms don’t even need water to raise havoc with driving. Strong winds can generate a 3,000-foot-tall wall of dust called a “haboob” that can can reduce visibility and pockmark windshields. If you encounter a dust storm, pull over a safe distance from the road, set your parking brake and wait it out. Turn off all lights, so other motorists don’t rear-end you.

If you can’t pull over, turn your lights on, reduce your speed to a safe level, and use the road’s center line to guide you.

Protect your tires

“Hot ambient temperatures and road surfaces can contribute to this heat which may cause a tire to fail more quickly,” says Dan Zielinski, senior vice president for public affairs at the Rubber Manufacturers Association, which represents tire manufacturers.

Watch for signs of overheating, such as a strong rubber smell. Also look for excessive wear on the tire’s outer shoulders, or small cracks in the tread and sidewall. “This occurs in most tires but if the cracking becomes severe where the cracks become more wide and deep, it can lead to tire damage,” says Zielinski.

Check your battery

The average life expectancy of a car battery in Arizona is only twenty-eight months, according to AAA. Plus, in the desert they can die suddenly, without the typical warning signs — such as dim lights or slow cranking — that you might encounter in a colder climate. Keep an eye on its fluid level, remove corrosion from the cables and terminals, and have it tested regularly.

Feed your car

Engines run hot in the desert, so keep the cooling system in top-notch condition. Check the fluid level along with belts, hoses and anything else that can dry out and crack. Stow five gallons of coolant or water, in case your radiator gets thirsty. Bring a gallon of drinking water for each passenger. Gas stations may be few and far between, so fill up the tank, too.

You might as well also include brake, transmission, steering and windshield wiper fluid. If you run out of it on a dusty road, they won’t do you any good sitting on a shelf in your garage.

Feed your thirst

If your car breaks down in a hot climate, stay as hydrated and cool as possible. Heat stroke or hyperthermia kills an average of 32 drivers or passengers each year.

“Having clean water on hand to combat the effect of temperature, especially if stranded during the summer, could be lifesaving” says Shaun Kildare, Ph.D., director of research at Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. He also notes that water can be used for cleaning wounds and topping off radiators.

Don’t skid on bleeding tar

In hot weather the tar that’s normally embedded in road pavement can liquify and bubble up to the surface. This creates a dark, slippery patch on the road. To drive over it safely, maintain a steady speed and don’t steer or brake suddenly.

Don’t touch hot car parts

You can burn bare skin by coming into contact with overheated materials, such as a seat belt buckle or outside handle. Child passengers are especially sensitive to such burns. Try to keep your car cool by parking in the shade, placing a sun cover against the windshield and cracking open a window or two.ii

Don’t leave the car

If you have a breakdown, remaining with the vehicle is safer than walking away to find help. You can become dehydrated and disoriented after only a short hike through the dry heat. Plus, a disabled vehicle is a lot easier for rescuers to spot than a disabled pedestrian.

Raise the hood to let passing motorists know you need help. Drink water and stay in the shade, even if it means lying underneath the chassis. If you must leave the car, leave a note with the time you left and the direction you’re walking.

Take the kids with you

Regardless of whether you have a breakdown or are just popping into a convenience store to buy some snacks, never leave children or pets alone in a parked car. Once the air conditioner is turned off, temperatures can rise by twenty degrees or more in a matter of minutes.iii iv “Even if it’s pleasant outside, you can overheat in a car,” says Vinyard. “And cracking the windows doesn’t really do much.”

Leaving a child or animal in a car unattended, especially without air and water, is a criminal offense in many communities and local residents — already familiar with the dangers — will not hesitate to report you to the police.

Stay warm at night

It sounds counterintuitive, but deserts can become very cold at night. The lack of humidity and cloud cover means that the day’s accumulated heat quickly radiates back into the atmosphere after sundown.

Be careful when using the car’s heater to stay while the car is idling. For instance, if a motorist rolls up the windows with the engine running, deadly gas can build up in the passenger cabin.

“Having a blanket on hand would reduce the odds of needing to run the vehicle,” says Kildare.

Carry a fire extingusher

Choose an extinguisher rated for “B (flammable and combustible liquid) and “C” (electrical) fires. Use one only if you can stand a safe distance from the fire and, if necessary, get away quickly. Vehicle fires are quite dangerous, producing toxic gases and hurtling debris through the air.

Bonus Tips: Stow a set tools

One moment you’re tooling down a ribbon of highway without a care in the world. Suddenly you’re standing on the roadside with a stalled engine, a car full of screaming kids — and an empty trunk.

Beyond a spare tire and jack, what should safety-conscious motorists carry with them for emergencies, both in and out of the desert? “Look for items recommended by the manufacturer of your automobile or even your insurer,” says James Aubrey Solomon, who directs defensive driving courses at the National Safety Council.

Definitely add a first aid kit. There’s a good chance you’ll need it someday.

Also include jumper cables, electrical tape, flexible wire oil, gas can, duct tape, fuses, screwdrivers and wrenches. Use jumper cables to charge the battery “only if you know how to connect them properly,” says Solomon. Otherwise, you risk an electric shock or fire.

Also, don’t try repairing your car unless you know what you’re doing. Every year, many people are crushed, electrocuted, burned, cut or otherwise harmed while working on a vehicle, according to Kildare. Call for road assistance instead.

Don’t forget a flashlight, road reflectors and light sticks. You may need to search your trunk in the dark, flag down help or keep drivers from crashing into your stalled vehicle — or yourself. If your flashlight includes a hand-crank to power it up, you’ll never have to worry about the batteries dying.

Some drivers still carry road flares, which create a small but highly visible flame. However, they come with their own set of hazards that include smoke, fumes, toxic residue and sharp debris. “Never use flares,” says Solomon.

(For more information on safe driving, check out our tips on brake failures and rollovers.)


David Arv Bragi, profile picture

David Arv Bragi is a multidisciplinary journalist with experience in health, safety, personal finance, technology, arts and cultural topics. He is also a former team leader and volunteer in community/tower emergency response teams. He currently lives just outside of Bellingham, Washington.