Rest areas have been a part of the U.S. Interstate Highway System since its inception in the late 1950s. Travelers in finned Chevrolets and hybrid Toyotas alike pull off at the blue exit signs to stretch their legs and use the bathroom. The first policy statement on interstate rest areas, published in 1958, called them a "safety measure" that would provide "provisions for emergency stopping and resting by motorists for short periods." Today, some people see rest areas as anything but safe thanks to an increase in crimes like prostitution, vandalism, theft, drug dealing, panhandling, vagrancy and car-jacking at many locations. While this trend is worrisome, rest areas can serve as a safe and convenient pit stop for your family vacation if you follow a few common-sense tips.
As you pull into a rest area, it's important you remain alert. Take note of the stop's name or the closest mile marker, so if you have an emergency you can give the authorities your location. Avoid individuals who seem to be hanging around parking lots and restrooms; that's a good indication he or she is up to no good. It's also a good idea to stay away from places where criminals might hide. Don't park beside large trucks, which can block your view of the parking lot. When you're walking up to the building, be wary of blind corners, recessed areas and thick vegetation. A well-designed rest area will have a rectangular design with few walls or bushes behind which people could hide.
Proper lighting can go a long way in discouraging crime at rest areas. Buildings are often well-lit, but look for places where the parking lot is illuminated as well. At night, avoid the peripheral parts of the rest area, like picnic tables, trails and surrounding woods, where illegal activity sometimes occurs. At rest stops where crime is particularly bad, frequent police patrols or even permanent security officers may be present. If this is the case, approach the trooper or security guard and ask them to look out for you while you visit the facilities, especially if you're alone.
While crime can occur at any time of day, a rest area is most dangerous after the sun goes down, especially if it's isolated and empty. If you're traveling alone at night, it might be a good idea to visit a staffed facility like a fast-food restaurant or a convenience store instead of a rest area. If you want to know how safe a rest area is before you visit it, there are a limited number of resources available to help you plan your trip. One such book is the "Interstate Travel Guide," a directory of America's rest stops that, among other details, employ onsite security.
Often the simplest safety measures are enough to keep you out of trouble at a rest stop. When you pull in to a parking place, don't linger in your car. Closed up inside with the music on, you can easily become oblivious to your surroundings, giving criminals the time and opportunity to target and confront you. When you get out of your vehicle, lock the doors to prevent theft. Also, try not to enter the rest area facilities alone. If you're traveling with young children, see if a family restroom is available. Even older children and adults should have someone accompany them to the restroom or wait for them outside.
While it may be cheap to spend the night at a rest area, it isn't necessarily safe. Many states have banned sleeping at rest stops due to increased crime, and many others have put up signs that discourage it. Your best bet is to look for campgrounds or state parks along your route where, for a small fee, you can more safely snooze in your car. If you have to sleep at a rest area, in an RV or car, keep the doors locked and don't open them to strangers. Talk to any strangers through the window or door, and if you feel threatened, drive away.
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