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Winter may bring a beautiful, glistening white blanket of fresh snow ready for snowmen and sledding. The season for snow and ice can also be the season for traffic accidents, but you do not have to be a victim of winter storms. You can reduce your risk of an accident by preparing your vehicle, learning how to react if you are driving in slippery conditions, and knowing what to do if you are stranded or lost on the road. Here are some tips that can help.

Before the Winter Flurries

Have a mechanic check the following items in your car:

  • Battery
  • Antifreeze
  • Wipers and windshield washer fluid
  • Ignition system
  • Thermostat
  • Lights
  • Flashing hazard lights
  • Exhaust system
  • Heater
  • Brakes
  • Defroster
  • Oil level (if necessary, replace existing oil with a winter grade oil or the SAE 10w/30 weight variety)
Before You Hit the Road
Install Good Winter Tires

Make sure the tires have adequate tread. All-weather radials are usually adequate for most winter conditions. However, some areas require that vehicles be equipped with chains or snow tires with studs.

Prepare a Winter Car Kit to Keep in Your Car

Must-haves for the Car

  • Windshield scraper and small broom for ice and snow removal
  • Small sack of sand for generating traction under wheels
  • Set of tire chains or traction mats
  • Booster/jumper cables
  • Flares
  • Small shovel
  • Flashlights with extra batteries
  • Small tools (pliers, wrench, screwdriver)
  • Brightly colored cloth to use as a flag

Must-haves for Passengers

  • A cell phone to call for help. Be sure to have a cell phone charger in the car.
  • Extra set of mittens, socks, and a wool cap
  • Several blankets
  • Sleeping bags
  • First aid kit with pocket knife
  • Bottled water
  • Necessary medications
  • Canned fruit and nuts (Choose ones with pull tabs or screw on caps.)
  • Non-electric can opener
  • Matches and a lighter
  • Extra newspapers for insulation
  • Plastic bags (for sanitation)
  • Cards, games, and puzzles
Other Helpful Hints
  • Maintain at least a half tank of gas during the winter season.
  • Give yourself plenty of time to get where you are going.
  • Plan long trips carefully. Listen to the radio or call the state highway patrol for the latest road conditions. Always travel during daylight and, if possible, take at least one other person.
  • Let others know where you are going and what route you plan on taking.
  • Stay on main roads. Avoid back roads and shortcuts.
  • Dress warmly and wear layers of loose-fitting, layered, lightweight clothing.
  • If you must go out during a winter storm, use public transportation.

Current driving conditions can often be found on many individual state's department of transportation website. You can also call 5-1-1 for updated national traffic information.

What to Do When Bad Weather Hits
Snow, Sleet, and Freezing Rain

Heavy snow, sleet, and freezing rain reduce visibility. Slow down and use your headlights. When roads are icy or slushy, allow plenty of room to slow down and stop—at least three times the normal distance to reach a full stop and avoid skidding. In icy conditions, it can take ten times longer to stop than on a dry road. Avoid harsh braking and acceleration. To brake on ice or snow without locking your wheels, switch into low gear early and allow your vehicle to slow down before gently braking. If your vehicle starts to skid, ease off the accelerator, but do not brake suddenly.

Fog

Fog drifts rapidly and is often patchy. Drive slowly and use your low beams. If visibility is really poor, use fog lights. You may have better visibility following the taillights of a vehicle in front of you, but do not drive too close. Crack the window so you can hear traffic around you. You can also use the line on the edge of the right lane to help guide you.

If You Get Stuck

If you find yourself stuck in snow or ice, do not continue to spin your wheels. Instead, pour sand, salt, or gravel around the drive wheels. Also, shovel snow away from the wheels and out from under the car to clear a pathway.

Surviving a Blizzard
Stay in the Car

Rescuers are more likely to find you in your car. Do not leave your car unless you can see a building to take shelter in. Blowing snow can distort distance, so be sure to know how far away the building really is. A close building may be difficult to get to in deep snow.

Display a Trouble Sign

Pull off the highway and turn on hazard lights. Hang a brightly colored cloth on the radio antenna and raise the hood. If you are in a remote place, spell out HELP or SOS in an open area using rocks, tree branches, or other nearby objects. This can help rescue teams locate you.

Occasionally Run Engine to Keep Warm

Turn on the car's engine for about 10 minutes each hour. Run the heater when the car is running. Also, turn on the car's dome light when the car is running. Beware of carbon monoxide poisoning. Keep the exhaust pipe clear of snow, and open a downwind window slightly for ventilation.

Watch for Signs of Frostbite and Hypothermia

Do simple exercises to keep up circulation. Clap hands and move arms and legs occasionally. Try not to stay in one position for too long. If more than one person is in the car, take turns sleeping.

For warmth, huddle together. Use newspapers, maps, and even the removable car mats for added insulation. Take turns sleeping. One person should always be awake to keep a lookout for rescue crews.

Avoid Overexertion

Cold weather puts an added strain on the heart. Unaccustomed exercise, such as shoveling snow or pushing a car, can bring on a heart attack or make other medical conditions worse. Be aware of symptoms of dehydration.

RESOURCES:

American Automobile Association
https://www.aaa.com

Federal Emergency Management Agency
http://www.fema.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canada Safety Council
http://www.safety-council.org

Canadian Automobile Associatin
https://www.caa.ca

References:

511: America's Traveler Information Telephone Number. US Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration website. Available at: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/trafficinfo/511.htm. Updated April 24, 2012. Accessed March 29, 2013.

Driving in fog. The Weather Channel website. Available at: http://www.weather.com/activities/driving/drivingsafety/drivingsafetytips/fog.html. Accessed March 19, 2013.

Driving in snow and ice. The Weather Channel website. Available at: http://www.weather.com/activities/driving/drivingsafety/drivingsafetytips/snow.html. Accessed March 19, 2013.

How to go on ice and snow. American Automobile Association website. Available at: http://newsroom.aaa.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/GoInSnowBrochure.pdf. Updated October 10, 2010. Accessed March 19, 2013.

Winter driving—emergency car kit. Washington State Department of Transportation website. Available at: http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/winter/emergencykit.htm. Accessed March 19, 2013.

Winter driving tips. AAA Southern New England website. Available at: http://www.southernnewengland.aaa.com/sne/public_affairs/winterdrivekit.php. Updated . Accessed March 19, 2013.

Winter storms and extreme cold. Federal Emergency Management Agency website. Available at: http://www.ready.gov/winter-weather. Updated February 11, 2013. Accessed March 19, 2013.



Last reviewed March 2013 by Brian Randall, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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