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Here's what you should keep in your car and other ways to prepare for winter driving

Stranded motorists wait for a tow on Interstate 95 on Jan. 4 in Ladysmith, Va. A massive winter storm closed about 48 miles of the interstate.
Steve Helber
/
AP
Stranded motorists wait for a tow on Interstate 95 on Jan. 4 in Ladysmith, Va. A massive winter storm closed about 48 miles of the interstate.

Updated January 28, 2022 at 1:21 PM ET

The best way to avoid getting stuck on the road in winter ice and snow is, well, to stay home.

But since that's not always possible, here are some actions drivers can take to better protect themselves and their families in winter storms, which can turn deadly for vulnerable people, preparedness experts tell NPR.

Keep emergency supplies in the car

Drivers who can afford to should always carry some type of emergency kit in their vehicles, advises David Bennett, a repair systems manager for AAA.

Snow or other bad weather isn't always the problem, he notes.

"It can be a nice day out and a major car pileup snarls traffic for hours," he says.

Some key provisions to have in the car:

  • first-aid kit
  • phone charger
  • flashlight with extra batteries
  • nonperishable food items, like protein bars (switch those out every few months)
  • a couple of bottles of drinking water
  • extra pet food, if applicable
  • shovel or ice scraper
  • But in the case of winter storms — like the one that paralyzed a 50-mile stretch of Interstate 95 in Virginia earlier this month — freezing temperatures pose another risk for drivers, says Eric Stern, a professor at the University at Albany's College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity.

    "Hypothermia is another concern," Stern says.

    Blankets, extra clothes, hats, scarves and gloves are all good things to keep in the car, especially if going out in harsh conditions, he says.

    And finally, before hitting the road, make sure your gas tank is topped off, both Stern and Bennett say.

    That definitely helped Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine when he was among those stuck on I-95 in the early January storm.

    Having a full tank helped him stay warm as others around him ran out of fuel during a trip that normally takes two hours and ended up being more than 26.

    "I would run the engine, with the heater on full-blast to warm the car, then I would turn the engine off," Kaine told NPR. "Then I had to turn it back on and I could, usually, with 10 minutes of engine, get about an hour of chilling in the car until I had to turn the engine back on."

    Staying in the car is usually the safest option

    It's hour eight and traffic has yet to move. Hunger has set in. In the distance, a distinct yellow arch can be faintly made out.

    Getting out of the car and walking to the nearest exit for food won't be so bad, right?

    Wrong.

    Leaving a vehicle, and potentially the only safe shelter and heat source, is not a good idea, experts tell NPR.

    "If you were to leave a vehicle, you'd have to have a very good reason. You have to have a good idea where you are," Stern says. "You'd have to try to assess: 'What are my prospects of being rescued if the situation has gone on so long that it's potentially life-threatening?' "

    Drivers look down the roadway as cars and trucks are stranded on sections of Interstate 95 on Tuesday in Carmel Church, Va., on Jan. 4.
    Steve Helber / AP
    /
    AP
    Drivers look down the roadway as cars and trucks are stranded on sections of Interstate 95 in Carmel Church, Va., on Jan. 4.

    Since a car is the safest place to be in this situation, Stern and Bennett say, it's important to always maintain the vehicle so it can hold up in bad weather.

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lists several steps for maintaining a car and prepping it for winter driving conditions.

    Drivers should keep exhaust pipes clear of snow and ice to avoid the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, the agency advises. It also doesn't recommend running the car for long periods of time with the windows up or in an enclosed space.

    Heed those weather warnings

    In many cases, dire emergency situations are avoidable.

    That was the case in early January, when experts issued warnings ahead of the fast-moving snow storm, according to Jonathan Porter, AccuWeather chief meteorologist.

    AccuWeather's forecast the previous day predicted several inches of snow that would come down fast — at least 1-3 inches every hour right in the middle of the morning commute, he said. The warnings were issued for drivers and local governments to be prepared and stay home. And yet, the backup on I-95 still happened.

    In situations where local governments drop the ball, it's particularly important for individuals to take such warnings seriously, Porter says.

    "People have a lot of different reasons for traveling. It's about being more proactive as it relates to winter weather and keeping track of that forecast," he says.

    Motorists travel along the southbound lanes of Interstate 25 in Denver after a winter storm dropped up to a foot of snow in the metropolitan area on Jan. 1.
    David Zalubowski / AP
    /
    AP
    Motorists travel along the southbound lanes of Interstate 25 in Denver after a winter storm dropped up to a foot of snow in the metropolitan area on Jan. 1.

    Travelers should keep an eye on the forecasts for where they are at the moment and where they are heading.

    Finally, Stern says, never be too proud to turn back if the weather is too treacherous to continue.

    "Some people are stubborn about getting where they are going, but sometimes it's better to turn around rather than to get in a really dangerous situation."

    Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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