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How to Stay Safe If You’re Trapped In Your Car During A Snowstorm

Richmond, Virginia Amtrak Station

January 6, 2022

A timely article from the NYT:

Safety experts offer advice on how people can keep warm and collected if they are stranded for hours on the road. Their top tip? Be prepared.

A snowstorm in Virginia stranded hundreds of drivers on Interstate 95 this week, leaving them shivering hour after hour, wondering why they couldn’t move and when help was coming.

In the aftermath of the storm, safety experts have offered advice on how people can stay safe if they are stuck in their vehicles. Their top tip? Be prepared.

But first, a caveat: Check the weather forecast before hitting the road, they said. If a snowstorm is expected, it is best to stay put.

For those who venture out anyway, here are some important safety tips should disaster strike.

Pack a ‘go bag.’

Some important essentials to bring are food, water and a charged cellphone, said Dr. Ken Zafren, an emergency medicine professor at Stanford University and an emergency physician at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, Alaska.

Beyond that, experts said it would be helpful to have the following: parkas, blankets, sleeping bags, boots, mittens, hats, flares, medications, wipes, a shovel, a first-aid kit, a cellphone charger, an ice scraper, jumper cables and a full tank of gas.

Even better: Keep these items in your car year-round, experts said.

Stay warm.

You are on the road. Snow is blanketing the ground. Traffic is gridlocked. What now?

First, do not leave your car, experts said. It is the safest place to be until the storm dies down.

“No matter how cold it is inside the car, it will be colder outside,” said Gordon Giesbrecht, a professor at the University of Manitoba who has studied human responses to extreme environments.

Resist the temptation to head out and find help, he added. If you go outside, you could get hypothermia or become lost.

Instead, generate heat by turning on the car for up to 10 minutes every hour, said Dr. Steve Mitchell, a medical director at the Harborview Medical Center’s emergency department in Seattle. Any longer could waste gas.

Human bodies naturally generate warmth, although younger people lose heat faster, he added. Wear a hat so you do not lose heat from your head.

Dr. Giesbrecht suggests maximizing your body heat by hugging your chest and putting your hands in your armpits.

There is only one situation in which you should step outside: if you need to check that your tail pipe is clear, to eliminate the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from exhaust, experts said.

Take care of yourself.

It is easy to feel isolated or scared, but remember that you are surrounded by other people who are also stranded, said Dr. Grant Lipman, the founder of the Global Outdoor Emergency Support, an app that offers tips for emergencies.

If you have them, eat foods that are high in fat and carbohydrates, which will give you energy and help generate warmth, he added. That includes nuts, chocolate and candy bars.

If you run out of water, drink melted snow, Dr. Mitchell said. But don’t drink alcohol. It will disorient you.

Have wipes and a bottle handy if you need to go to the bathroom, Dr. Lipman said.

While your phone may provide a needed distraction, it is important to preserve your battery so that you can make emergency calls, he said. Close your browser and any other battery-draining apps.

Instead, you can distract yourself by doing small exercises in the car, which will also help you stay warm, Dr. Lipman said.

What about pets?

Lean breeds, older dogs, and puppies are more susceptible to hypothermia, according to the American Kennel Club.

Experts said you should include items for your pets in your emergency kit, such as a blanket and food. While in the car, you could huddle with your pet for warmth. Ideally, you can cover the pet with some form of insulation.

Be visible to rescuers.

When your engine is running, turn on your hazard lights or dome lights so rescuers can see you, experts said.

The National Weather Service suggests tying a bright-colored cloth to your antenna or door. When the snow lets up, raise the hood to signal for help.

Driving when the storm passes.

Drive slowly to avoid skidding, and note that it takes longer to decelerate in icy road conditions, according to AAA. Accelerating too rapidly can cause wheels to spin out of control.

Maintain distance from other cars, trucks, and snow plows.

Tire pressure drops in cold weather. Drivers should inspect tires monthly and before long trips, according to guidance issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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