Family-Friendly Travel -- When I was a child, everyone had bigger families and bigger cars, usually station wagons. We were herded into the far back, usually for long trips, without seat belts or safety locks. There was very little around-town driving like there is now. Sports, extracurricular activities, church, errands and school were almost always within walking distance. Surviving the rough-and-tumble world of the '50s was hit-or-miss, so the safety-conscious '70s were a welcome relief. But strapping a kid into a car seat presented a new problem -- boredom. Piled into the back of a '50s station wagon, the big kids took turns entertaining the little kids. Bouncing from place to place, squabbling, far-flung card games and pillow tossing kept us entertained. I heard of one mother who encouraged her children to wear themselves out in a unique way. As soon as they hit a long stretch of empty highway, they were told to practice their warning screams, just in case they ever needed to alert, say, the police station without the use of a phone. In the name of safety, they yelled at the top of their lungs until they were exhausted.
These days, vehicles are becoming a second home for many kids and their parents. Making them more family-friendly and safe doesn't take too much effort. Gadgets abound to help deliver families in one piece, emotionally and physically.
BACKING UP: A backup warning system keeps parents from driving over toys or worse. Inexpensive wide-angle mirrors are available from Muth Co. in Sheboygan, Wisconsin (800-844-6616, www.muthco.com).
High-tech obstacle detection systems that beep when a vehicle is backing up are available from EchoMaster (800-922-7862, www.echomaster.com).
ENTERTAINMENT: If you limit how much your children watch movies or use video games at home, they'll be easily entertained with a portable "video in a bag" system found at Fun TV (866-607-8867, www.mobilefuntv.com).
SNACKS: Healthy snacks are a must. Sugar, kids and cars are a lethal mix. A small refrigerator that plugs into a vehicle's power is great for long trips. The more expensive models have freezers. With a freezer you can have on hand some healthy homemade yogurt Popsicles. Stock your refrigerator with carrots and celery sticks. Find out more about refrigerators at www.fridgefreeze.com.
Avoid expensive, salty potato and corn chips saturated with unhealthy oils by making a quick batch of popcorn. Here's a recipe that kids love. Honest. The nutritional yeast makes the popcorn taste like those cheese-covered (and unhealthy) corn puffs.
1 / 2 cup Organic Popcorn Kernels
1 / 4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 / 4 teaspoon Sea Salt
2 Tablespoons Nutritional Yeast Powder
Pop kernels in an air popper. Drizzle on half the oil. Mix. Drizzle on remaining oil. Mix in salt. Mix in nutritional yeast. Makes 3 servings or about 15 cups popcorn.
ON-BOARD BABY MONITOR: You can keep an eye on babies strapped into back seats in their rear-facing child seats by using an in-car camera with a small monitor that mounts below your rear-view mirror. When your baby gets older, the camera can be repositioned for a view of the entire back seat, so parents can keep their eyes on the road instead of turning around to check on passengers. You can find more information from Magna Donnelly in Holland, Michigan (616-786-7000, www.donnelly.com).
CARGO ORGANIZER: Somewhat like a shoe organizer for home closets, backseat organizers that hang from a vehicle's headrest are great for holding pencils, toys and picture books. Find some ideas at www.highlandusa.com (click on "organizing").
If you're planning a long trip, surprise your children with new toys that are individually gift-wrapped, metering out the gifts as rewards for good behavior. Opening gifts is fun, uses up time and creates anticipation -- something to look forward to after another 200 miles has gone by.
PET RESTRAINT: It's wise to keep pets in a harness to protect them in a crash as well as everyone else in the vehicle. You can find one at: www.covercraft.com (click on "Roadie").
EMERGENCY ROAD KIT: In a sturdy container, put together a pair of jumper cables, a flashlight, water, a blanket, gloves, hats and a flare. You can buy a ready-made kit from Lifeline First Aid (877-377-8243, www.lifelinefirstaid.com).
Since batteries can be short-lived, you can find a hand-powered flashlight at www.realgoods.com or www.restorationhardware.com (search for flashlight). Another handy item is a portable tire inflator. It plugs into your car's power source and easily inflates soccer balls, inner tubes, pool toys, water rafts and air mattresses. Go to: www.sparkleauto.com.
Enjoythedrive.com is a Web site that lists hundreds of custom accessories. Prowl the site for ideas and then make some of them yourself. You don't have to spend a fortune turning your vehicle into a more family-friendly home away from home.