By Gordon Williams 

February 6, 2018. Photo by Sanja Tabor for the American Red Cross.

If this was a normal year, we’d be preparing for the Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday travel season and you would be reading lots about how to stay safe on crowded wintry roads. It is far from a normal year, and the best advice for holiday travel this time around is: Don’t Do It Unless You Absolutely Must.

“Travel increases the chance of getting and spreading Covid-19,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others.” 

Still, some of us will be on the roads — to get to and from work, to do necessary shopping or to just get away for a few days. Despite the pandemic, some families will gather for the holidays. So here are winter safe-travel tips for those of us who will be using our cars. 

First, make sure your car is fit to drive — and that you are fit to drive it. 

If you rarely drive these days so your car just sits in the driveway, the battery may get run down or a tire may have lost air pressure. You want the car to run when you need it. Your well-being could depend on the car working if there is a disaster and you must evacuate. Run the car every two or three days to keep the battery fully charged. Make sure tires are fully inflated, that all lights work, and that the windshield washer reservoir is filled. 

If you haven’t driven much of late, your own skills may need some touching up. Take a half-hour drive at least once a week just to keep your behind-the-wheel skills sharp. 

Fit out your car with all the emergency supplies you would need if you are on the road and mechanical troubles or bad weather forces you to stop. Keep an emergency kit in the trunk. The American Red Cross suggests that your kit include “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.” 

Have spare batteries for the flashlight and radio, and a car charger for your cell phone. Add flares or reflective triangles, to be used if you must pull onto the shoulder to await help. 

You would keep all this in your car year around. Now that winter is nearly here add a shovel, a snow brush with scraper and a bag of cat litter to help you gain traction on slippery roads. Add a blanket and a head covering in case you are stuck in a cold car.  

Before setting off on a journey, check the weather forecast for your destination. Dialing 511 in Washington will bring you the latest on road conditions in the state, including roads closed by construction and any detours along the way. You will also hear about conditions in the mountain passes. Calling 511 in Washington will link you to 511 systems in Oregon, Idaho and Montana. If you are traveling long distances, make sure someone knows your route and when you expect to reach your destination. If you don’t show up, potential rescuers will have an idea of where to search for you.   

Get an early start, especially if you expect to run into bad weather along the way. It’s easier to navigate snowy or icy roads in daylight and easier to summon help during normal business hours. With road traffic at a minimum, not every garage or auto parts store stays open in the evenings. Give yourself plenty of time to make the trip — safely. 

 There are more safety rules to follow once you are out on the road: 

  • Be well-rested and alert before starting out. Highway safety experts agree that coffee and energy drinks are no substitute for a good night’s sleep when you are traveling. 
  • Give your full attention to the road while you are driving. If you must make a phone call, pull over to the side of the road, stop and then use your phone. 
  • Observe all speed limits. Your risk of an accident increases if you are driving too fast, but also if you are driving too slow. 
  • Make frequent stops along the way. If you can, rotate drivers every few hours. 
  • If you feel tired, pull over and nap for an hour or two. Stay buckled, and make sure nothing is blocking your view in front, to the rear and to both sides.  

Finally, wherever you travel this holiday season, make sure everyone follows the Covid-19 safety rules: Wear a mask, maintain social distance, keep all gatherings small and do things outdoors when possible. Make sure you know — and follow — any and all pandemic rules in place at your destination. The American Red Cross wishes you a happy, healthy and safe holiday season!

American Red Cross Northwest Region

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