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Record number of travelers expected

Dec. 21, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- Sophie Voelkel has been traveling either to North Carolina or New Jersey for major holidays for the past 29 years.

The 30-year-old Huntington resident and child protection services investigator doesn't have any family in West Virginia other than her parents, and will soon be making a 588-mile drive to New Jersey to spend Christmas with her relatives.

"It's tiring, but it's the holidays," Voelkel said. "I want to be with my family. Sometimes this is the only time of year I get to see them, so I'll do whatever it takes to get there."

Voelkel will be one of the 94.5 million Americans expected to travel 50 miles or more from home for the holidays, according to projections from AAA.

According to the agency, 91 percent of those people will be traveling by car.

That's a new high for the Christmas/New Year travel season, and AAA is also projecting the heavy traffic will lead to some problems.

The agency already expects to respond to 46,000 stranded motorists in the five-state area of West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania between Dec. 21 and New Year's Day. About 8,600 dead battery calls and 15,300 tows are expected, along with 5,100 flat tires and 5,000 cases of motorists locking their keys in their cars.

And that doesn't include those travelers who may run into foul weather, which was forecast for some parts of the country in coming days. Locally, temperatures were expected to be in the 60s and 70s this weekend, with rain likely, before starting to turn colder early in the week.

Voelkel said she doesn't recall any traumatic events in her travel, though she does remember a particularly hard night when she was a girl.

"It was the middle of the night and we were stuck on the interstate because the roads had iced over and they shut it down," she said. "No one was moving. I wasn't old enough to drive, so I just went to sleep. I'd wake up, and we were still stuck, so I'd go back to sleep again."

And, although particularly heavy road traffic is expected this season, Voelkel said Christmas is usually not a bad time to travel, barring bad weather.

"It's not as bad as Thanksgiving," she said. "People tend to take more time off around Christmas, so not everyone is on the road on the same day."

The weather is expected to cause some problems over the weekend.

Forecasters were predicting a stew of foul weekend weather, from freezing rain then snow in the north to torrential rain in the Ohio Valley and Appalachia and possibly even tornadoes in parts of the South.

The worst of the storm wasn't expected to hit Midwest population centers until Saturday, and although few flights had been canceled as of midday Friday, the weather was taking a toll on air travel: FlightStats.com reported more than 1,900 U.S. delays, with the most at Chicago's O'Hare, Denver International, and the three big New York-area airports.

AAA advises that anyone expecting to travel for the holidays have their vehicle checked and properly maintained.

Voelkel advises not making a long trip by yourself.

"It's always good to have a road companion," she said. "If you do it by yourself, it seems like it takes even longer, and it's hard."

Here's advice from AAA for avoiding incidents while traveling by car during the holidays:

Antifreeze: Check antifreeze annually to ensure it will withstand the winter cold. A 50/50 mixture of coolant and water will protect against freezing.

Windshield wipers and washer fluid: Replace wiper blades if they do not clear the glass in a single swipe without streaking. Where appropriate, consider the use of special winter blades that offer improved performance in snow and ice conditions. Fill the windshield washer reservoir with winter detergent fluid to prevent freeze up.

Tires: Cold weather reduces tire inflation pressure, so check tire pressures frequently and maintain the vehicle manufacturer's recommended pressure found on the driver's door jamb -- not the pressure stamped on the tire sidewall. Motorists should never reduce tire pressure in an attempt to increase traction on snow and ice. This does not work, and when the roads dry out it can cause excessive tire wear and vehicle handling problems.

Battery: Check for a secure fit and clean away any corrosion on the battery and its cable connections. Have the battery tested before cold weather hits to check if replacement is necessary,

Belts and hoses: Replace accessory drive belts that are cracked, glazed or frayed, as well as coolant hoses that are visibly worn, brittle, bulging or excessively soft. Check for leaks around hose clamps and at the radiator and water pump.

Other important areas to have a certified technician check in preparation for winter include the vehicle's fluid levels, lights, brakes, exhaust system and heater/defroster. Throughout the winter driving season, motorists should continue to have regular services, including oil and filter changes, performed at the intervals recommended by the vehicle manufacturer.

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