It's August. For millions of Americans, that means it's time for vacation travel.

If you're hitting the road this month for some family fun before school starts, make sure you take precautions to beat the summer heat. The American Automobile Association (AAA) reminds motorists that summer weather can cause temperatures inside a parked vehicle to reach levels that can be dangerous or even fatal--especially to children and pets.

When the outside temperature is 93 degrees, the temperature inside a car, even with a window cracked, can reach 125 degrees in just 20 minutes. It can soar to about 140 degrees in 40 minutes, reports the National Safe Kids Campaign, a safety program whose sponsors include Children's National Medical Center in Washington. Under those conditions, kids or animals left in cars can die or suffer permanent disability in a matter of minutes. Why? The extreme heat rapidly overwhelms the body's ability to regulate its temperature, and the body's major organs may shut down.

Babies and small children are in particular danger if they are left in a car in hot weather. So when your family makes a "pit stop," be sure everyone is out of the car and safe in the shade--including any pets who have come along with you.

When you get back to the car from your rest stop, open the doors if it has been parked in the hot sun, the AAA advises. Let the interior cool for a few minutes before you climb in. In the summer, it's a good idea to use a sun shield to cover the windshield when the car is parked to lessen heat buildup and to help protect the vehicle's interior. If you don't have a sun shield, at least use a towel to cover metal and plastic parts on safety belts and child safety seats. When they are exposed to the sun in hot weather, the metal parts can get hot enough to cause serious burns.

Your family should be sure to bring along plenty of cool water for everyone in the car. Make sure to refill your bottles during rest stops. When it's hot outside it's especially important to drink water, even if you're just sitting in the back seat of the family car. Water helps keep your body cool.

We function best when our body temperature is about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Luckily, we have a built-in air conditioning system to keep us at that temperature. It's called sweating! When the body gets too hot, water escapes through the pores in the skin in the form of sweat. Then it evaporates into the air. As the sweat evaporates, it cools the body down.

While you're on the road, make sure to replace the water you lose from sweating. It may mean you have to ask the driver to make an extra rest stop or two so you can go to the bathroom--but that will give you a chance to buy tons of funny postcards to send your friends back home.

Tips for Parents

Since the start of June, at least 19 children have died as a result of being trapped in automobiles parked in the searing heat, reports the National Safe Kids Campaign. "Many of these deaths are the tragic result of parents who don't know the lethal conditions of a closed car in hot weather," says Heather Paul, the program's executive director. "All adults need to understand that any unlocked car can become a deadly playground for small children, who may know how to enter but, once inside, are unable to escape." A Safe Kids survey found that only 50 percent of parents always lock their cars at home and one of out of five parents rarely or never do so. More than half of the deaths reported this year occurred when children crawled into unlocked cars while playing.

The Safe Kids Campaign provides these tips for the remaining summer days:

* Keep cars locked at all times, even in the garage or driveway.

* Teach children not to play in or around cars.

* Never leave your child in an unattended car, even with the windows down.

* If your child gets locked inside a car, dial 911 or your local emergency number immediately.

For more information, write to the National Safe Kids Campaign, 1301 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20004, or visit the program's Web site, www.safekids.org.

For You to Do

Is your family packing up for vacation travel? Make yourself a road-trip kit to carry along.

Depending on what you want and how much room there is in your car, your stuff could go in your backpack, a small suitcase or even a shoe box. Here are some ideas for what to include:

* A map of your route and a tour book about your destination.

* A personal tape player and cassettes. Include your favorite music or book on tape. Your library will have many to choose from.

* Hard candy or other snacks that won't melt.

* Foil-wrapped wet tissues in case your hands get sticky.

* A sketchbook and colored pencils.

* Your diary.

* Crosswords, puzzles or other word games.

* A refillable squeeze bottle of water.

* Your favorite stuffed animal.

* Address book and stamps so you can keep in touch with your friends back home by sending them postcards.