Don’t Be That Guy: 5 Car Catastrophes to Avoid This Winter


Highway's Agency on FLickr,
Highway’s Agency on FLickr,
The Story: The Washington Post called it “traffic anarchy.” During an infamous 2011 snowstorm, northbound commuters trapped on the George Washington Parkway without food or water got so desperate some hopped the medium and wove through opposing traffic. Others simply abandoned their vehicles and started walking. The interstate, marred with black ice, fallen trees, and snow-trapped 18-wheelers, held travelers captive for nearly 13 hours. Unable to find a bathroom, people relieved themselves on the street. The Culprit: Multiple-accidents. On slippery, high-use highways, a driver doesn’t just slide into the next car — he sets off a chain of crashes. Rescue cars and snow clearing vehicles add to the delays. How to Avoid Winter Gridlock:
  • Stay away from interstates. When snow starts to fall, everyday congestion can quickly turn into a pileup.
  • Don’t drive during rush hour. If you aren’t planning to leave hours beforehand, then arrange overnight accommodations where you are.
  • Stay away from streets lined with trees, telephone poles, or anything else that can fall into the road.
  • If you must travel, wait to hear the roads have been cleared. You can call 511 in most states to get up-to-date reports on road conditions.


thisreidwrites on Flickr,
thisreidwrites on Flickr,
The Story: First it’s the snow, wind and sleet. Then come the emergency calls. During a recent storm in Baltimore, Maryland, the American Automobile Association received up to 1,000 calls in a single hour – mostly from drivers who couldn’t start their car. In rural Indiana, Rigo and Claudia Garcia were rescued by a local farmer after their vehicle drowned in a snow drift. It took the rescuer over three hours to clear a path and pull the couple to safety. The Culprit: Unpredictable driving conditions. The volume of snowfall is up to 10 times the volume of rain. Once it starts falling, it can trap an object in minutes. Drivers in warmer climates are also more vulnerable to engine failure during the rare cold-front because they haven’t developed wintertime maintenance habits. How to Avoid Getting Stranded:
  • Always check the weather report before driving. Keep track of the storm’s expected arrival and do any mandatory errands and trips beforehand. Pay special attention to sub-zero temperatures, high winds, and road clearing schedules.
  • Avoid rural areas when the snow starts to fall. Generally, road clearing is reserved for major roads so rural drivers are even more vulnerable if they get stranded.
  • Check your vehicle’s coolant levels, battery charge, and test the engine every few hours before you plan to drive. This will help ensure your car doesn’t fail in your time of need.
  • In addition to a snow shovel, keep abrasives, such as kitty litter or sand in the backseat to help with traction.
  • Keep a survival kit in the backseat and make sure it includes a cell phone charger. Keep emergency numbers stored on your contact list – it could end up being your lifeline.


Mark Winterbourne on Flickr,
The Story: When Darrell Grant of Stamford, Connecticut got stranded on a snow bank, he did what seemed reasonable. He made an emergency call, turned on the heat, and waited to be rescued. Then he died from carbon dioxide poisoning. The Culprit: Frozen tail-pipe. Snow slid from the bank into Grant’s exhaust pipe and clogged it, forcing the lethal, odorless fumes back into the enclosed vehicle. How to Avoid Carbon Monoxide Poisoning:
  • Remove snow and ice from your entire vehicle and look inside your exhaust pipe – the metal can freeze and seal-over with snow and ice. You might not spot it at first glance.
  • Get our car checked for possible leaks
  • Keep a heavy blanket inside your car so that if you get stuck, you’re not reliant on the car’s heater
  • If you do get stranded, Center for Disease Control recommends running the engine no more than 10 minutes per hour. Keep one window cracked open to diffuse potential leaks


Image Source: j_silla on Flickr,
Image Source: j_silla on Flickr,
The Story:  In Portsmouth, New Hampshire the driver of an SUV “rolled-over” and hit a tree after skidding over compacted snow.  Snowfall was light that day and he was traveling at the speed limit. The Culprit: Overconfidence. State police frequently note drivers who cause accidents during the winter are usually driving large, 4-wheel-drive equipped vehicles. Winter-ready mechanics cannot replace good driving habits and even light snow can be treacherous. How to Avoid an Accident:
  • Don’t take light snow for granted; it only takes ¼ inch to cause slippage that can lead to an accident. Slow down!
  • Don’t drive over 40 mph when your traction is compromised, even if you have four-wheel drive
  • Know how to use your breaks properly. Apply gradual, consistent pressure to antilock breaks and gentle pumping to non-antilock breaks
  • When planning your trip, factor in 40 percent more travel time. That’s how much longer it takes during snowfall. You’re much more likely to get into an accident if you’re rushed.
  • Give yourself room to stop suddenly. Keep at least 70 feet (4-car lengths) from the vehicle ahead.


Ari Helminen on Flickr,
Ari Helminen on Flickr,
The Story: Drivers in Saint Louis Missouri found themselves walking to work after their cars were buried in plowed snow. The problem got worse as the weather warmed. The Culprit: Urban avalanches. Plowed snow can pile high on narrow city streets. Once it reaches a certain height, it starts to fall back into the road and onto parked cars. How to Avoid getting Plowed-In:
  • Have a plan for storing your car before the storm hits. If you must park on the street, pick a wide, major road, where avalanches will be less problematic
  • Consult your city’s street maintenance department to find out which roads are getting plowed. Move your car if you have to.

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