What will you do the next time the "hot" light comes on in your car? What can you do about it on the highway or in bumper-to-bumper traffic? What can you do when you're off the road and the radiator is spewing steam like Old Faithful?

By keeping your "cool," you won't let a lot of heat lead to engine damage or unsafe driving.

At the first sign of overheating, put on the car's warning flashers, check the traffic and try to safely get off the road. If you can't exit immediately, do what you can to take the load, and heat off the engine.

Turn off the air conditioners, turn on the heater, and open the windows.

If you're stopped in heavy traffic shift into "neutral" and rev the engine a little. This will have a cooling effect.

Once you're off the road, turn off the ignition, raise the hood, and let things cool down for 15 to 20 minutes. At this point, you can conduct a series of checks on the cooling system.

Here's what to look for:

Inspect the belt which operates the fan and water pump. You can fix a loose belt by adjusting its tension. Simply loosen the adjustment bolt, move its accessory unit outward, then tighten.

If the belt is broken, and you do not have a spare one in the car, you'll have to wait for the tow truck.

Check the coolant level in the radiator. If it is low -- and not because of boiling over -- you probably have a leak in the system that my be uncovered later on.

If your car uses a coolant recovery system, you don't have to remove the radiator cap. Simply glance at the transparent coolant recovery tank. Designation marks on the side -- COLD FULL, HOT FULL and ADD -- will tell you the present coolant level.

Caution: Hot coolant can spew out of the radiator, so use care if you have to remove the radiator cap. Cover the cap with a rag and turn it counterclockwise to the first stop. Allow the pressure to escape and step back. When you no longer hear any hissing, press downward on the cap, turn, and remove.

Check condition of the coolant. If it looks rusty, the radiatior might be plugged with rust and sediment, blocking the flow of coolant through the radiator and/or thermostat.

look for leaks or rust marks around the hose, hose clamps and the radiator. If your problem is a ruptured hose or loose clamp, either can be repaired temporarily with electrician's tape. Rust spots on a hose or radiator indicate the presence of a leak which only occurs when the engine is running. Seek the help of a mechanic in this case.

Don't overlook the bottom radiator hose either. It contains a spring to prevent it from collapsing under highspeed operation.

If the spring loses tension, the hose will collapse and block the circulation of the coolant. Once again, you won't be able to make emergency repairs if this is the problem. But if you enough, coolant in the radiator, and take it easy as you drive, you should be able to make it to a service station for professional repairs.

Using a glove or rag for protection, feel around the water pump (located behind the fan and fan pulley). If you detect wetness, the pump probably is defective and will have to be replaced.

While you can't readily check for more complex sources of overheating on the open road, you can help prevent overheating problems from stopping you again. Make it a point to inspect all hoses periodically and flush and change the radiator coolant once a year.