Survival Tips for a Winter Breakdown: Stay Warm, Stay With the Car

December 19, 2010

Protecting yourself and your family during winter weather driving conditions that suddenly strand you – often miles from help and in areas you may be unfamiliar with – takes on even more importance this holiday season when AAA estimates that 90 percent of all Americans will be traveling (most on the highways).

Here are a few more Family Car Guide survival tips to help keep everyone safe this winter whenever you’re in the car.

Stay in the vehicle. More people die after becoming stranded in a wintertime situation because they leave their vehicle than if they just stayed put. Survival experts recommend that everyone in the party remain inside the vehicle until help arrives. You’ll have heat and be protected from the elements.

Run the engine every hour. If you’ve followed the common sense rule of keeping your vehicle’s fuel level at or close to full, you’ll have enough fuel to run the engine for a maximum of 15 minutes each hour.

Use the dome light--sparingly. You’ll also be able to use the dome light for illumination at night – it draws less current from the battery than emergency flashers – and can be seen by searchers.

Clear the snow off the hood. Do clear the snow off the hood and roof so that your vehicle will be visible to searchers. This is especially important in remote locations. A car buried in snow is almost impossible to spot.

Don't try to dig the car out. You’ll only wind up exhausting yourself and the sweat you work up will dampen your clothes – and keep you from getting warm. Be sure to clear the snow away from the vehicle’s exhaust pipe, though.

Ventilate the car. Crack the window to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning when you’re running the engine and car heater.

Contact help if possible. It goes without saying that if you have cell phone reception, call 911 and give your location – as near as you can. But remote locations often have spotty or no cell phone coverage, so be prepared to wait it out.

Here’s a case where emergency services such as OnStar come in handy. If you have it--and a cell connection--with the press of a button, you’re connected with an OnStar adviser who can alert authorities and direct emergency support to your exact location. During severe weather, OnStar advisers can also provide evacuation routes, connect you to loved ones, or help you find food, water, medical supplies, or shelter locations.

Stay awake, however you can. As the hours go by with no rescue, it’s easy for panic to set in. Try to remain calm. Sing songs, tell stories, read anything that’s in the car. You should be sure that you bring anything you need from the trunk inside the vehicle with you – and maybe that includes books or newspapers that can keep everyone’s mind occupied and allay fears. Stay awake, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends it to prevent vulnerability to cold-related health problems.

Don't eat snow. Use an empty coffee can and waterproof matches to melt snow for drinking water, should you need it. Eating snow will lower your body temperature.

Stay as warm as possible. Move your arms and legs to improve circulation. Wrap your entire body in extra clothing, blankets, even newspapers. Huddle together to keep warm.

Above all, stick together. Your chances of surviving the winter breakdown may depend on it.

For winter driving tips, see Bengt Halvorson’s story in The Car Connection.

[AAA, OnStar, CDC, The Car Connection]

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