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Vacation time nears, bringing plans for long auto trips to Disney World or the family vacation spot, to pick up children at school or leave them at camp.

Anxiety about driving has surged in recent years because of carjackings and attacks on tourists at roadside rest areas. The biggest hazard, however, remains motorists themselves: the National Safety Council attributes 70 percent of crashes to driver error.The following tips for safe car travel are arranged chronologically, in the order they would apply on a trip.

Check out the car. The goal is to drive a car that will not betray you into an unplanned stop. Well in advance of a trip, get out and look at the headlights, the turn signals and flashers.

Test the horn. Have the oil and filters changed if it's been 3,000 miles since the last time. After a winter of deep potholes, have the tires rotated on the schedule recommended by the auto manufacturer, particularly if you have front-wheel drive, which focuses the strain there. Check the inflation of the spare tire.

Ask the repair shop to check the electrical system, the battery and the alternator, and to see that the terminal ends on the battery are clean. The hoses and belts should also be inspected. Be sure the container of washer fluid is full, wiper blades are effective and all seat belts and door locks are in working order.

Plan the route. Calculate the distance on the basis of an exact route on an up-to-date map. If this is not your idea of fun, driving clubs do it for their members.

The Rand McNally road atlas ($8.95) and the American Automobile Association road atlas ($7.95) both contain national maps showing distances between cities on the Interstate highways and the time the trip would take if driven at the speed limit, 55 or 65 miles an hour, without stopping.

Mark a first-choice alternative route in another color marker. "Ask directions, ask for trouble," is the motto given by Jean O'Neil, director of research for the National Crime Prevention Council. If you are visiting friends, ask for specific directions to the house, emphasizing that you prefer the safest route over a short cut.

Safety authorities recommend that the driver stop every two hours to stretch the legs. The route plan should include time for such stops, preferably at places with toilets, restaurants and fuel. Get recent information about closed highway ramps from the area you will visit.

The length of the driving day depends on age, stamina and the patience of passengers. Seven or eight hours is plenty for the average traveler.

Pack for security. Anything in a moving car that is not strapped in, and this applies particularly to the bars used to lock the steering wheel, can become an object that strikes the driver or passengers on an abrupt stop.

Pets should be in carriers or be otherwise restrained (there are dog seat belts). Suitcases should be locked in the trunk, water bottles in pouches or seat pockets. A flashlight in the glove compartment is wise, even if there is a big emergency flasher in your trunk.

A full purse or waistpack should not be placed on the empty passenger seat, where it is a visible target, or on the floor by the driver, where inertia may cause it to wedge under the brake or land on the accelerator. A good storage spot for valuables is under the front passenger seat.

A cellular phone fitted to the car or a citizen's band radio is a wise investment for anyone who must drive long distances alone. A good night's sleep the night before is conducive to good driving.

Safeguard children. All children, whether in front or back, should ride in safety seats or belts; every state requires it. Safety improvements have, however, brought at least one complication. Rear-facing infant seats must not be used on the front seat if there is an airbag on that side, but on the back seat.

However, some convertible seats, when used facing rear to hold infants, are too large for the back seat. If this is the case, buy or borrow a smaller nonconvertible infant safety seat. The American Academy of Pediatrics, with help from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the Department of Transportation, has just re-issued its leaflet, "Family Shopping Guide to Car Seats, 1994."

It lists names and models that meet federal standards for autos (which also qualify them for use on airlines) and gives approximate prices. To obtain it, send a stamped self-addressed envelope to Safe Ride Program, American Academy of Pediatrics, 141 Northwest Point Boulevard, Post Office Box 927, Elk Grove Village, Ill. 60009.

Traffic crashes remain the leading cause of death for people aged 5 to 34, according to U.S. government statistics. Everyone in the car, front seat or rear, should ride belted.

Drive warily. In good driving conditions, the National Safety Council recommends two full seconds of following distance behind the car in front. When that car passes a road marker, count off two seconds. If your front bumper reaches the marker before you finish counting, slow up to allow more space.

Because of slower responses, a driver over 50 years old should allow three seconds; add an additional second for night driving, bad weather or other unusual situations, for instance towing a trailer. The rules have changed on what to do in a skid: Turn the wheel gently to go the way you want to go.

Manage emergencies. Overheating is a common summer problem. If the indicator rises sharply, shut off accessories, open the windows and turn the car heater on high to force coolant through the engine. If this fails, pull into a safe spot and shut off the engine until it cools. Don't open the hood while the engine is overheated.

As for a flat tire, the old rule about not driving farther is to be ignored if you are on a road that makes you uneasy. If you do not have a cellular phone, drive on the flat tire, even ruin it, to get to a place where the tire can be replaced in safety.

If you are alone and the car won't move and you cannot phone for help, remain in the car with the windows shut until a highway patrol or tow truck spots you. If another driver stops and offers to help, lower the window only enough to pass a quarter out and ask the passer-by to call the police from the next phone booth and tell them of your position.

If while driving you are bumped from behind in the now-classic scenario, signal to the bumping drivier that you are proceeding and wish that driver to follow.

Avoid sleepy time. If two drivers are making the trip, switch regularly. The passenger can help by staying awake and keeping up conversation. Do not let the car get warm and comfortable.

"Easy listening" radio stations are not a good idea. The safety council recommends changing stations often, which is a necessity on long trips anyway, and keeping the volume up.

Some states now have laws governing the wearing of headsets for personal tape players: It is illegal for a driver to wear a headset in California, and New York forbids it unless one ear is uncovered. Whatever the law, it is not safe to seal youself off from ambient sounds.

Chewing gum, wearing sunglasses in daytime, slapping the thighs, exercising at stopping times and eating light food or snacks are anti-fatigue steps recommended by the National Safety Council.

If drowsiness persists and you are alone, do not continue on. But a recent safety card from the International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus counsels: "Day or night, never park in a rest stop to sleep."

Since the crime prevention group helped assemble these rules, Ms. O'Neil was asked where the drowsy driver should go instead. She said it was a matter of risk assessment. "Go where there is natural surveillance," she said. "A shopping center parking lot near stores where people are going in and out. Or to the rear of a row of stores, where employees pass."

Getting off the Interstate takes extra time, she agreed, but many Interstate signs point out malls. She said it was important to avoid sleeping in a place like a roadside breakdown area, where those who see you are passing at high speed and cannot assess whether a person leaning in the window is helping or harming you.

In any case, she said, do not recline the seat and get out the teddybear; nap upright. If nothing serves, go to a motel and sleep.

Use precautions at night. Do not use cruise control because it leads to inattention to driving. Look around a lot. Try to avoid long distances, because headlight glare contributes to fatique. The safety council says that the accident rate is three times greater at night because of fatigue, poor visibility and the increased possibility of drunken drivers.

Last month, the secretary of transportation, Federico F. Pena, announced that the 1993 motor vehicle fatality rate was 1.7 deaths for each 100 million vehicle miles driven, the lowest rate since 1921, when the government began estimating vehicle miles on the basis of gasoline taxes and average miles to the gallon.

The vehicle-miles figure is not affected by the number of people in the car. The number of deaths in 1993, 39,850, however, represented a rise from 1992, when 39,235 people were killed in motor vehicle traffic.

Pena said that increased use of safety belts was one reason for the lower fatality rate. He said that state surveys showed seatbelt use at 66 percent, which was estimated to have saved 5,300 lives.