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.
Have a mechanic check the following items in your car:
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.
Must-haves for the Car
Must-haves for Passengers
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.
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 3 times the normal distance to reach a full stop and avoid skidding. In icy conditions, it can take 10 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 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 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 path.
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. Even a close building may be difficult to get to in deep snow.
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.
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.
Do simple exercises to keep up your circulation. Clap your hands and move your arms and legs occasionally. Try not to stay in 1 position for too long. If more than 1 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.
American Automobile Association
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Canada Safety Council
Canadian Automobile Association
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 May 11, 2014. Accessed February 10, 2015.
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 2010. Accessed February 10, 2015.
Winter driving—emergency car kit. Washington State Department of Transportation website. Available at: http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/winter/emergencykit.htm. Accessed February 10, 2015.
Winter storms and extreme cold. Federal Emergency Management Agency website. Available at: http://www.ready.gov/winter-weather. Updated August 27, 2014. Accessed February 10, 2015.
Last reviewed February 2015 by Michael Woods, 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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