Preparing for a car journey
Sometimes it’s too easy to hop in the car without thinking about whether it’s the best way to get from A to B, or even whether you’re really fit to drive. This section will help you think about how you can make your journey safer and more economical.
Is a car right?
Before you start your journey, take a few seconds to think about whether a car is the best way of travelling.
Would it be better to walk or cycle instead? Your car won’t work very efficiently when it’s only driven a short way.
Could you share a car with someone else or use a train, bus or tram? These can be cheaper than using a car, especially if you buy a ticket in advance, and using public or shared transport is usually better for the environment too. It can also be safer if you’re tired or travelling a long way as you can rest on the way.
Thinking about the best way to travel will save you money and make your journey safer.
Road transport makes up around 20% of all emissions making it one of the biggest sources of air pollution, particularly in densely populated areas.
Air pollution, including the carbon dioxide and nitric oxides released when burning fuel in an engine, can
contribute to health problems (eg respiratory problems, heart or vascular disease)
damage vegetation and disrupt wildlife
deplete natural resources.
Vehicles also contribute cause noise pollution. Try not to slam car doors and rev your engine. You must not use your car horn between 11.30 pm and 7.00 am unless another vehicle poses a danger to you.
Different types of fuel have different environmental effects.
Type of fuel used by engine
Modern engines are becoming more efficient.
Catalytic converters remove up to 75% of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons.
Catalytic converters do not reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted.
If you drive at over 3000 rpm, the catalytic converter can’t clean up emissions completely.
Very fuel efficient.
Produce less carbon dioxide than petrol engines.
Emit less carbon monoxide and fewer hydrocarbons than petrol engines.
Produce more oxides of nitrogen, which are bad for local air quality.
Liquefied petroleum gas
Cheaper than petrol or diesel.
Emissions cause less air pollution than petrol or diesel engines.
Produces more carbon dioxide per mile travelled than diesel.
Cost of driving
If you’re thinking about buying a car, make sure you take into account all the different costs that come with owning it.
Buying the car – will you buy a new or used car? Will you have ongoing monthly charges or interest to pay?
Insurance and road tax paid annually – both vary widely depending on the type of vehicle you choose.
Fuel – diesel tends to work out cheaper than petrol when calculated as pence per mile.
Breakdown cover – not essential but strongly recommended.
Servicing – either annually or at regular intervals, depending on how far you drive.
MOT test – annually when the vehicle is three years old or more.
Repairs and maintenance – for example, tyres and brakes. It’s difficult to predict when your car will need repairs, and they can be costly – how will you pay for them?
Parking and tolls – where will you park your car during the day and in the evenings?
Are you fit to drive?
Alcohol, illegal drugs, medicines, injuries, tiredness and your mood can all affect your driving. If you ever feel that you might not be able to drive safely, don’t drive. Decide the best way to deal with the situation: you may need to delay your journey or find a different way to make your journey. If it’s a longer-term problem, you may have to stop driving altogether.
You must not drink and drive. Alcohol will seriously affect your judgement and ability to drive safely.
In 2011, 280 people were killed in drink-drive accidents and 1290 people were seriously injured. In the same year, drivers aged between 20 and 24 failed more breath tests than any other age group. (Source: Dept for Transport/National Statistics).
The amount of alcohol (units) in different types of drink varies. You must not drive if your breath alcohol is higher than 35 microgrammes per 100 millilitres (which is the same as a blood alcohol level of 80 milligrammes per 100 millilitres). Driving with alcohol in your blood is extremely dangerous and carries serious penalties if you drive or attempt to drive while over the legal limit. You can find more information on penalties in The Highway Code.
If you’re not sure whether you’re over the limit, don’t drive.
It’s safest not to drink any alcohol before you drive. For more information on drinking and driving, see GOV.UK.
Any amount of alcohol can affect your judgement of speed, distance and risk; it can also make you sleepy. It takes just over an hour for your body to process a unit of alcohol and remove it from your system so if you drink heavily in the evening, you may still be over the limit the following day.
Drugs, medicines and driving
If you’ve taken illegal drugs, it’s against the law for you to drive. See The Highway Code or GOV.UK for more on the tests and penalties for drug driving.
The effects of illegal drugs can be even more serious than alcohol. Drugs can have unpredictable effects and you may not be aware of them affecting you. The direct effects of some drugs can last up to 72 hours.
During 2011, at least 640 accidents were caused by drug-drivers (using illegal drugs or medicines), including 49 deaths. (Source: Department of Transport)
Some medicines can make you sleepy and will affect your ability to drive. Whether you’ve bought the medicine over the counter or been given it on prescription, always read the label. If it says ‘may cause drowsiness’, it probably will make you sleepy. If you’re not sure whether it’s safe to drive while taking a medicine, check with your doctor or pharmacist.
Taking a combination of prescription medicines, over-the-counter medicines, illegal drugs, controlled drugs or alcohol can have an unpredictable effect on you, so you shouldn’t drive while you could be affected by them.
Driving when you’re tired
If you’re tired, you won’t be fully alert and aware of what’s going on around you, which means that you won’t be able to drive safely. Don’t begin a journey if you feel tired.
If you start to feel tired while you’re driving,
find somewhere safe to stop so you can rest (never on a motorway hard shoulder)
try having a caffeine drink and a short nap to refresh you before you start driving again
open a window to let in some fresh air if you can’t stop immediately.
To help you stay alert, make sure you
have the driving seat in the right place so that you can use the pedals, gear stick and steering wheel comfortably
sit up straight – if you slouch, you won’t breathe in as deeply as you should.
Emotions and driving
Extremes of emotions – such as anger, sadness, stress, grief or even happiness – will affect your concentration and how you judge what’s happening on the road. Many crashes are caused each year by drivers being careless, thoughtless or reckless. If necessary, take some time to calm down and get into the right frame of mind before you get behind the wheel or ask someone else to drive.
Driving with an injury
You must make sure that you have full control of your vehicle at all times.
a twisted ankle can affect how you use the pedals
a stiff neck can make it difficult to check mirrors and blind spots.
If you’ve suffered an injury, you may want to check with your doctor before you drive. Think before you drive: if you can’t control the car properly and see all around, you won’t be able to drive safely.
To have a driving licence, you must be able to read in good daylight, with glasses or contact lenses if necessary, a vehicle number plate from a distance of 20 metres (about five car lengths). If you need glasses or contact lenses to do this, you must wear them whenever you’re driving.
Eyesight changes over time so you must have an eyesight test at least every two years. If you drive when your eyesight doesn’t meet the standard, you’ll be driving illegally and you’ll be less safe on the road.
When the sun is bright use sunglasses to reduce glare, which can make your eyes tired and reduce the amount you can see. Make sure you take them off when you drive through a tunnel or when conditions are less bright so you can still see clearly.
Your mind and body go through gradual changes, especially as you get older. These changes can affect your driving – for example, your reactions may become slower, you may tire more easily or your muscles may become weaker.
As you grow older you’ll need to concentrate more carefully on your driving and take care when judging the speed of other traffic.
Speak to your doctor if you’re concerned about whether you’re safe to drive.
There are many vehicle modifications that can help people with physical disabilities drive safely. These include
hand controls for braking and acceleration
steering and secondary control aids
left-foot accelerator conversions
parking brake devices
extra car mirrors
seat belt modifications
wheelchair stowage equipment.
Automatic gears and power-assisted steering may also help you if you’re a disabled driver.
Carrying passengers and loads
If you’re carrying passengers, you’ll need to check that they’re safe before you start your journey. As the driver, you’re responsible for everyone in your car.
Seat belts and restraints
If your car has seat belts, you and your passengers must use them. Exactly what sort of restraint they should use depends on their age and size.
Adults and children aged 12 and over, or at least 1.35 metres tall (approx 4 ft 5 in), should use the ordinary seat belt on their seat.
Children aged 3 to 12 years, or up to 1.35 metres tall, must use a suitable child restraint such as a booster seat.
Children under 3 years must use a suitable child seat – either forward facing or rear facing.
Very young babies (up to 13 kg) must use a rear-facing child seat.
Never fit a rear-facing child seat in a seat that has an active airbag. You must deactivate the airbag before fitting the seat.
Make sure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions when fitting a child seat or restraint – if you’re not sure, ask a specialist for help.
Adults must not put one seat belt around themselves and a child on their lap: this could cause serious injury in the event of a crash.
Modern cars are fitted with head restraints (sometimes referred to as headrests) to help prevent neck injuries in a crash. You’ll need to adjust the head restraint so it’s the right height for you: the widest part of the restraint should be in line with the top of your ears.
You must make sure you don’t overload your vehicle. Check your car’s handbook to see how much weight it can carry and how to load it safely.
If you’re carrying a load, make sure it’s
not blocking your view
not sticking out dangerously.
Think about whether you need special equipment to carry loads safely and securely, such as a roof box, cycle rack or straps to anchor items. You can get advice on how to fit and use this equipment from specialist shops.
Try to distribute the weight of the load evenly around the car to help keep the vehicle stable. If you’re carrying or towing a heavy load, you might need to make some adjustments to your vehicle such as
increasing the air pressure in the tyres
adjusting the aim of the headlights.
Carrying extra weight will make it take longer for the car to accelerate and brake. It’ll also affect how the vehicle steers, so you’ll need to go around corners more slowly than usual.
Animals must be restrained so they can’t block your view or cause a distraction. Dogs can travel in a special cage or behind a dog guard; you can also use a harness for extra security. Other animals should be carried in a cage or pet carrier, secured with a seat belt if possible.
Passengers in your car can be very distracting, whether you’re driving your friends to the pub or taking your children on a trip. Whatever their age, passengers aren’t always aware of how their behaviour can distract you from driving and how dangerous this could be.
It’s your responsibility to keep your passengers safe so make sure that they don’t distract you. This could involve
asking your passengers to be quiet or to turn down music
making sure you don’t drive irresponsibly because of something a passenger has said or done
stopping the car so that you can sort out any problems before you carry on with your journey.
Never allow your passengers to put pressure on you to drive dangerously or show off.
Basic car maintenance
As a driver, you’re responsible for the roadworthiness of your vehicle – that is, that it’s safe to be driven on the road.
In many modern cars, many of the mechanical parts are sealed and can only be checked by a qualified mechanic but there are some checks that you must do. Look at your vehicle’s handbook to see which checks you can make and how to do them.
Take care to check all around your car for anything that could make it less safe on the road. It doesn’t take long and it’s usually easier to fix a problem when you spot it early.
Checking the engine oil
Engine oil keeps the engine lubricated so it can work efficiently. Check the oil level regularly, especially before a long journey, to make sure the oil is at the recommended level.
Your vehicle handbook will tell you how to check the oil level and how to top it up if necessary. It should also tell you what type of oil to use. Using the wrong type of oil can increase fuel consumption, damage the engine and could affect the vehicle warranty. Don’t overfill your engine oil as this can damage the engine and cause extra emissions.
Checking the engine coolant
The engine coolant is a mixture of anti-freeze and water, which stops the engine from overheating. You should check the coolant level frequently, and especially before a long journey. Look at your vehicle handbook to find out how to check the engine coolant and how to top it up if necessary.
Tyres are vital to your car’s safety: damaged or incorrectly inflated tyres could blow-out or lose grip on the road surface and cause an incident.
Make sure that your tyres are correctly fitted and check they’re inflated to the correct pressure regularly. Use a tyre pressure gauge when the tyres are cold to make sure the pressures match those given in the vehicle handbook.
The tread on your tyres must measure at least 1.6 mm across the central three-quarters of the tyre, going all the way around the tyre.
Check your tyres for damage that could make them unsafe, such as bulges, cuts, stones, etc. If you’re caught using faulty or worn tyres, you could be charged with fines of up to £2500, driving disqualification or points on your licence for each faulty tyre.
Uneven or excessive tyre wear can mean that there’s a fault with the tyres, brakes, steering, suspension, wheel alignment or wheel balance. Get your car checked by a mechanic as soon as possible so any faults can be put right.
You can use tyres that are specially adapted for different weather conditions.
Winter tyres are better than summer tyres for braking and grip when the temperature is under 7°C. You’d need to change the tyres when temperatures rise above this.
All-season tyres are between a winter tyre and a summer tyre: they’re designed to work well in low temperatures and in the summer.
Checking the windscreen and windows
Keep the windscreen and the windows in your vehicle clean and clear. Windscreens often get damaged by stone chips. A damaged area bigger than 10 mm across in the area of the windscreen immediately in front of the driver will fail an MOT test because this could block your view. This would need to be repaired or the windscreen replaced. On the rest of the windscreen, damage up to 40 mm across can be repaired. If damage can’t be repaired, the windscreen must be replaced.
Battery: make sure the terminals are secure, clean and greased. Most modern batteries are maintenance-free and sealed for life. However, if the battery has a filler cap, you’ll need to check the fluid level to make sure that the plates in each cell are covered. Top up the battery with distilled water if necessary, but be careful not to overfill it.
Lights: make sure the front and rear lights, brake lights, indicators and hazard lights work. You should do this each time you use the vehicle. Use reflections in windows and garage doors to help you see whether the lights are working, or ask someone to help you.
Windscreen washers and wipers: check the washers are working correctly and make sure there’s enough liquid in the washer reservoir. This is especially important in wet, muddy conditions. Check the wipers too – replace the wiper blades if they’re damaged or worn.
Horn: check the horn is working properly but be careful not to do it when it might frighten or annoy other people
Keep your car’s lights, indicators, reflectors and number plates clean at all times. Dirt on the lights and reflectors will stop them working effectively.
Checking the controls
Get your vehicle checked by a qualified mechanic as soon as possible if
you feel or hear knocking or rattling from the steering or suspension
there is a lot of ‘play’ in the steering wheel (ie you can move the steering wheel from side to side without the wheels moving from side to side)
the steering begins to feel heavy (ie it needs a lot of effort to turn the wheel)
the brakes feel spongy or slack.
Check your brakes, including your parking brake, are working whenever you set out on a journey.
Disposing of oil, batteries and tyres
If you service your own vehicle, make sure you dispose of old engine oil, batteries and tyres by taking them to a local authority site or a garage. Don’t put these items in the household waste or pour oil down the drain because they can damage the environment.
Disposing of these items incorrectly is illegal: you could be fined or given a prison sentence. By taking them to a local authority site, they can be safely disposed of or recycled.
Checks before you start a journey
Before you start any journey, there are some things you should check to make sure your car is fit for the trip – especially if it’s a long one.
the tyre pressures: you might need to increase them if your journey is going to involve a lot of motorway driving or driving at the national speed limit.
all the lights are clean and working.
you have enough fuel for your journey or, if you’ll need to refuel, plan where you’ll do this to make sure you don’t run out.
Make sure you know what sort of fuel your car uses. Be very careful not to put the wrong type of fuel in your car: using the wrong fuel will cause serious damage to the engine.
While you’re driving, keep an eye on how much fuel you have left. Some cars have a warning light that shows when fuel is getting low; others may have a gauge that tells you how many miles you’ll be able to drive on the remaining fuel (called a range indicator). Don’t rely on this too closely: the distance you can drive will depend on how you’re driving and in what traffic conditions. Only use the range indicator to give you an idea of how far you’ll be able to drive, and refuel in good time.
Before you can legally drive on the road in the UK, there are some documents you must have.
Driving licence: you must have a valid licence for the type of vehicle you’re driving. For more information on how to get your driving licence, visit the learners section
The vehicle registration certificate (V5C): your vehicle must be registered with DVLA. The Vehicle Registration Certificate (V5C) will show the details that have been registered (registered keeper and vehicle information)
Vehicle tax: vehicle excise duty (also known as vehicle tax or road tax) must be paid on all vehicles used or kept on public roads, unless the vehicle is exempt. Visit GOV.UK to pay your vehicle tax or claim an exemption. If you want to take your vehicle off the road instead of taxing it, you must make a Statutory Off-Road Notification (SORN). Make a SORN at GOV.UK
Car insurance: it’s illegal to drive without insurance. You must have at least third-party cover before you can take a vehicle on public roads.
MOT test certificate: the MOT test checks your vehicle is safe on the road and that it meets minimum legal standards for its effect on the environment. If your vehicle is more than three years old, it must have a valid MOT certificate. The certificate lasts for one year – then you’ll need to get the vehicle tested again.
You must tell DVLA if you
change your name or address – find out how to change your name or address on the V5C at GOV.UK
have or develop a medical condition that affects your ability to drive – see GOV.UK for more details on medical conditions that DVLA needs to know about
buy or sell a vehicle
make any major changes to the vehicle, such as its colour, fuel type or the number of people it can carry – see GOV.UK for details on vehicle changes that need to be registered on the V5C.
You must show your driving licence, a valid insurance certificate and a current MOT certificate (if appropriate) when an authorised person, such as a police officer, asks for them. You can either produce them immediately or within seven days at a police station.
If you borrow or rent a vehicle, or if you lend someone your vehicle, it’s your responsibility to make sure that all the appropriate documents are in place. Never assume that someone else has arranged the documents or that they’re not necessary.
Other countries may have different rules about these documents so remember to check before you drive abroad. You may need to have your documents with you whenever you’re driving. Find out more about driving abroad in our Drivers section.
Planning a journey
There are lots of tools you can use to help you plan your journey to avoid congestion and get to your destination on time. Always plan your journey before you set off and, if possible, plan alternative routes in case there’s a problem with your original route.
Try to allow some extra time for your journey in case there are delays – especially if you’ve got to be at your destination by a specific time, eg if you’re catching a plane or going to an appointment. Delays can make you frustrated and more likely to take risks to avoid being late, which could lead to an incident.
Using a sat-nav
If you’re using a satellite-navigation system (sat-nav), enter the destination before you start your journey so you’re not distracted by it while driving. A sat-nav can be very useful if you need to change your route but be careful not to rely too heavily on it: if you suspect that the route is wrong, use your common sense rather than following it blindly.
Using a map
Alternatively, use a map to plan your journey. There are route planners available online. Check motoring organisation websites for information about roadworks and areas that might be congested.
It’s a good idea to keep a map in your car in case you need to change your route or if there’s a problem with your sat-nav.
Spotting problems or risks on your route
When you’re planning your route, look out for areas where there are congestion charges or tolls for using roads or bridges: you may want to change your route to avoid these.
How suitable a particular route is can depend on exactly when you travel. You’ll find very heavy traffic on some roads during rush hour or in the holiday season, so you may want to avoid these routes. If you’re driving a vehicle that’s affected by windy weather, such as if you’re towing a caravan, you might need to change your route to avoid exposed roads when the weather is windy.
Remember to think about your driving skill and experience when you’re planning a route: if you’re not confident about a route, find an alternative route rather than taking risks.