Safe holiday driving tips from the highway safety experts

By Gordon Williams

We made it past one of the year’s two busiest travel weeks — Thanksgiving. But still to come is the even more challenging Christmas week. Fortunately the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has lots of good advice for staying safe on the highways even when the roads are thronged with holiday travelers.

Some of the advice comes directly from FEMA. More comes from agencies that are partners in FEMA’s #SafeTravels initiative, including the American Red Cross. #SafeTravels aims to keep the roads safe during the Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday rush. It originated in FEMA Region 10 (which includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska); Savannah Brehmer, social media coordinator for Region 10, is program lead. Brehmer sees the idea taking hold in other regions, since highway safety during the holidays is a national issue.

A good place to start for highway safety is by dialing 511 for the latest in travel information. It works in most areas of the U.S., but the information you get is specific to your location.

Dialing 511 in Washington will update you on road conditions, including construction shutdowns and detours. You’ll hear about conditions and restrictions in the mountain passes, plus any emergency messages or alerts. Finally, dialing 511 in Washington will give you access to the 511 systems in Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

Before you set off on your journey, think ahead to all the things that could go wrong before you reach your destination — from car trouble to bad weather that shuts down highways and leaves you stranded. Besides calling 511, also check out the weather forecast for your destination, and get an early start or delay your departure if you are likely to run into bad weather. Finally, follow the safety advice available from the Red Cross and other organizations. 

Here’s what the Red Cross suggests stowing in your car just in case you do run into trouble. “Pack high protein snacks, water, first aid kit, flashlight, small battery operated radio, an emergency contact card with names and phone numbers, extra prescription medications and important documents or information you may need.”

The Red Cross further suggests that you let someone know your destination, your route, and when you expect to arrive. If your car gets struck along the way, help can be sent along your predetermined route.

Here are more tips from safety experts for when you are actually on the move:

  • Buckle up, slow down and don’t drive impaired.
  • Be well-rested and alert. (A point all the safety experts agree on is that when you are traveling, coffee and energy drinks are never substitutes for a good night’s sleep.)
  • Give your full attention to the road. Avoid distractions such as a cell phone.
  • Observe speed limits. Driving too fast (or too slow, for that matter) increases your chance of being in a collision.
  • Make frequent stops. During long drives, rotate drivers. If you are too tired to drive, stop and get some rest.

FEMA has some specific advice for families traveling with children and/or pets. Remember to bring an emergency supply of food and water for your pet. Something familiar like a toy or blanket can help the animal cope with the stress of travel. Have digital copies of the pet’s health records and take a picture of you and the animal in case you become separated and must prove ownership.

FEMA suggests bringing games along to keep youngsters entertained during the drive. It specifically mentions the Red Cross Monster Guard app, available at both the Apple store and Google Play. The app is meant to keep kids 7 to 11 entertained while teaching them vital lessons about handling real-life emergencies.

A mishap could separate family members. Make a plan for how family members would communicate and reconnect in an emergency.

Finally, there is the Department of Homeland Security’s Ready.gov website with still more safe travel advice, including what it calls “automobile extras” to be kept in your car. Among the recommended extras are jumper cables, flares or a reflective triangle, ice scraper, car cell phone charger, blanket, map and cat litter or sand to provide tire traction when needed.

Also from Ready.gov is the warning never to drive through a flooded area. Six inches of water can send your car out of control while a foot of water can set it afloat. As a general rule in winter, keep your gas tank full. That could be important if a storm or power outage forces you to evacuate — the full tank will keep the gas line from freezing,

While this advice is aimed at holiday travelers, you should keep it in mind all year. It can keep you safe on the road, whether your next trip is to another state or just down the block to the corner convenience store. Either way, the Red Cross wants you to arrive safe and sound!

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