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Stranded in Your Car This Winter? Here’s How to Survive…

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You’re on your way home from stuffing yourself at the in-laws’ house. The kids are dozing off in the back seat. Although you departed much later than planned, you’re still hoping to beat a winter storm projected to strike that evening. No such luck. It appears the snow got an early start, and you find yourself driving through a blizzard. Suddenly, you hit a patch of black ice, and your car uncontrollably veers off the road and into a snow-packed ditch.

After your initial shock wears off, you check that no one in the car is hurt. Everyone is shaken up but OK. But your vehicle is not. It is at a 45-degree angle resting on a ditch and engulfed in snow.

You call AAA or law enforcement for assistance. The temperature outside is below freezing, and you have no idea how long it will take for them to arrive. The goal is to keep your family safe until then. What would you do if you found yourself in a similar predicament?

Some Staggering Statistics

Before getting into what you should do, let’s look at some staggering winter statistics. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration reported that more than 70 percent of the nation’s roads are located in snowy regions, which receive more than 5 inches of snowfall on average annually. Nearly 70 percent of the U.S. population lives in this area.

Snow and ice can be your worst enemies. They often lead to reduced speeds, delays, increased anxiety and frustration, and a compromised ability to operate your vehicle, which, in turn, can lead to an accident. Each year, 76,000 people are injured in vehicle crashes during snowfall or sleet. Another 900 are killed.

Vital Winter Tips

After calling for help, first and foremost, don’t abandon your car. It’s your only shelter to protect you from the freezing temperatures and wind chill, which can lead to hypothermia or frostbite. (The first sign of frostbite is usually experiencing numbness, not pain, in your limbs.) It’s important to keep circulation in your limbs by keep your hands and feet in constant motion rather than remaining stationary.

Another reason to stay with your car is that you want the help you’ve called to be able to locate you when it arrives. Your car is a landmark. Don’t make it any more challenging for your rescuers. Tying a brightly colored cloth to your antenna or placing it on your vehicle is a method to help if the conditions outside compromise vision. Road flares are also helpful.

If you leave your car running, make sure the tailpipe is not submerged in snow. It can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning and even death. Dozens of deaths from this silent killer are reported each year during the winter months. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 430 people die in the U.S. from accidental CO poisoning every year. Automobile exhaust is the most common source of carbon monoxide. What makes it so dangerous is that it’s odorless.

Winter Survival Kit

Having a winter survival kit in your vehicle is an essential part of winter travel. Your kit should include the following items:

  • an extra coat or jacket
  • ice scraper/snowbrush
  • small snow shovel
  • spray-on ice remover
  • flashlight
  • extra blankets (preferably wool)
  • extra socks
  • several pairs of gloves
  • high-energy, non-perishable snacks (such as protein bars)
  • bottled water
  • first-aid kit
  • hand warmers
  • matches
  • tea-light candles
  • small tin (to burn the candles in)
  • road flares (or a brightly colored cloth)

The contents of this kit might seem excessive, but if you find yourself in a pinch like in the scenario above, you will be happy you have these items.

Prudent and Proactive

The takeaway here: Use common sense during the winter months. Check the weather and road conditions before venturing out. If your local weatherperson advises you to stay off the roads, do it. It’s not worth jeopardizing your life or the lives of others.

Don’t hesitate to stay the night if you are at a family member’s or friend’s home. Likewise, if your visibility is compromised, pull off and wait it out. Reschedule your plans if it’s nasty out. A little bit of caution on your part might save lives.

Make sure you use common sense and are prepared before you hit the roads this winter. You have an obligation to be your family’s protector. Do this by staying prudent and being proactive. Do not underestimate Old Man Winter.


About Frank Jastrzembski

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Frank Jastrzembski is an associate editor with Delta Defense, LLC. He studied history at John Carroll University (B.A.) and Cleveland State University (M.A.). He’s written dozens of history and travel articles and two books on Victorian officers. He’s also a regular contributor to the blog Emerging Civil War. He runs “Shrouded Veterans,” a nonprofit mission to identify or repair the graves of Mexican War and Civil War veterans.

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