What to do if you're stuck on the highway during a winter storm
It’s scary and dangerous and most people don’t think it can happen to them. But when it does, experts say it’s important to be prepared and informed.
More than 40 miles of Interstate 95, in one of the busiest stretches of roadway in the mid-Atlantic, were shut down for over a day in early January 2022 as crews worked to clear snow, ice and stranded vehicles.
Nearly 70% of the U.S. population lives in a region that receives more than 5 inches of snow annually, and an overwhelming number of the nation's roadways traverse those snowy areas, according to the Federal Highway Administration, which means there is a high likelihood that your simple grocery store run or morning commute could be impacted by winter weather at least once.
From snow to sleet to freezing rain or ice, winter weather yields numerous types of precipitation that all pose hazards and difficulties on the roadways. According to the FHA, more than 24% of weather-related vehicle crashes occur on snowy, slushy, or icy pavement, and 15% happen during snowfall or sleet.
But equally dangerous is getting stuck for hours in a snowstorm in your vehicle. Most people don't envision themselves ever being stranded on the highway because many cars and trucks today can better manage in winter weather. But the unthinkable does happen and being prepared and knowing what to do can help save you and your family's lives.
Hundreds of people faced that scary ordeal on Jan. 3 when they were stuck overnight on Interstate 95 in Virginia. A fast-falling snowstorm stranded drivers and their passengers for 24 hours along a 40-mile stretch of the highway. Emergency crews finally freed them the next day.
"The best thing you can do to protect yourself is to not travel if you can," AccuWeather Meteorologist Bernie Rayno said, but "if you do have to be out on the roads, you need to have a kit with you and you need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario."
The most important thing to do before venturing out during the winter is to be aware of the road and weather conditions.
"If there is any mention of snow and ice, you need to know when that is going to occur," Rayno said, "that's where the AccuWeather app comes in because we have hourly forecasts, minute forecasts, we can pinpoint when the worse is going to be."
Keeping an emergency car kit doesn't require much time or money but could be one of the most important precautions that could keep you safe in a winter emergency on the roadway.
Having a flashlight, gloves, a battery-powered radio, water and extra food in your emergency kit is vital.
Heavy traffic is seen at the base of a snowy Santiam Pass in Detroit, Oregon, on Dec. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Selsky)
If you cannot move or are unsuccessful in getting your vehicle unstuck, stay where you are. Don't abandon your vehicle. It is a good shelter, especially during a winter storm.
"The guidance in almost every situation with getting caught in the snow is to stay in your car," Thomas Bedard, an emergency preparedness specialist and meteorologist at AccuWeather, said. "Death by hypothermia can happen really quickly, especially if you don't have the right clothing on and when you're walking in near white-out conditions, it is impossible to see where you're going."
You will want to notify the authorities with your cell phone and pinpoint your location with GPS either on your cellphone or with navigation services in your car. Make sure to tell the authorities relevant information, like how much gas your car has, how much food and water you have and your location.
If you don't have any cellphone service to contact the authorities, then it is important to stay put.
"If you try and get out, you're going to get lost," Bedard said. "There are fatalities every year with individuals leaving their vehicles during a snow event and getting lost and dying."
Also, turning your car off periodically will help conserve precious gas and battery life and reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
"Carbon monoxide is a silent killer," Rayno said, "you have to make sure you alternate having the heat and your car on and having your windows open.
"That's why it is important to not just rely on the heat in your car but to have warm clothing that will keep you warm when you turn off your car," he noted.
Also important, especially with ever-changing weather conditions, is to make sure that you are visible to others. If you are stuck in a snowstorm, snowfall rates could quickly cover your car in the snow, making it hard to find. Using a piece of bright-colored fabric, road flares, or a traffic light behind your vehicle will all help to ensure your car is easily spotted on the road or highway.
Even before you get stuck, it's essential to take it slow on the road. Varying winter precipitation can quickly cause low visibility and only give you seconds to react to a hazard on the roadway.
If the roads are covered in snow or ice, you should adjust your speed for better traction. The ice and snow can take away about half of the traction you have with your tires, so by lowering your speed by about half, you can maintain the same amount of traction on the roads as if they were dry.
Also make sure that you are using fluid movements when braking or steering. By doing multiple things at once, your tires can quickly become overloaded, taking away the amount of traction they have.
Lastly, give yourself space between your car and the vehicle in front of you. This will provide you with enough time to react to any roadway hazards or any change in speed.
"During the winter, make responsible transportation decisions, know what that forecast is because blizzards don't hit without warning," Bedard said. "If you get stuck, stay there and call somebody."
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