The rules for Safe Holiday Travel

By Gordon Williams 

We’re heading into the peak holiday travel season, as millions of Americans hit the highways to visit friends and families. Before you travel, be certain you are alert to all that could go wrong during a holiday trip.  Icy roads can make driving hazardous. A sudden storm or a bad accident could trap you in a cold car for hours. You might have to dig out of a drift, or walk a distance in search of help. 

Nor is the risk of being trapped in your car by weather a hypothetical one. The rain that soaked Northwest Washington in mid-November left motorists stranded for hours. Washington State’s  Emergency Management Division (EMD) reported “seeing stories of folks stuck in traffic for 8-12 hours because of closures, flooding and landslides.”  

How would you fare if conditions stranded you for hours? Do you have enough gas to keep the heater going until you reach safety? Do you have a charged cell phone so you could telephone for help or to let the family know you are okay? Are there medications you should have brought with you?  

You don’t have to cancel your holiday travel plans–as long as you apply the rules of winter travel safety. There is plenty of safety advice readily available–from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), and the American Red Cross. 

“Driving safely begins before you even get on the road,” says the NHTSA. “Regular tune-ups and maintenance are the starting point for safe driving year-round. In winter, pay special attention to your vehicle’s battery, wipers, coolant, tires, and other systems that can take a beating when the temperature drops. If you are using snow tires, have them installed before the snow begins to fall.” 

Make sure your gas tank is full even if you expect to travel only a few miles. Check tire pressure before you leave and make sure the window washer is filled with fluid that won’t freeze. Clear snow, ice, and dirt from windows, head and tail lights and backup cameras, 

Equip your car with the gear you might need on the road. WSDOT’s must-have list includes a flashlight and batteries, a blanket for each passenger, nonperishable snacks, water,  cell phone charger, tire chains, flares or a warning triangle, and sand or kitty litter for traction. :  

Check weather conditions at your destination and along the route, you will be traveling. Make use of the 511 service on your phone. Dialing 511 will bring you the latest on highway conditions on Washington roads and in the mountain passes. 

If you can’t connect with Washington 511, dial 1-800-695-7623. Check out WSDOT’s Highway Advisory radio at 530 AM and 1610 AM.  

There are comparable 511 services available in Oregon, Idaho and Montana. And WSDOT maintains 13 Twitter accounts for localized travel info. These include: 

  • @wsdot will bring you statewide travel info 
  • @wsdot_passes will update you on conditions in the mountain passes. 
  • @wsdot_east–will report on conditions east of the Cascades. 

Obey all chain-up notices when posted, Not using chains when they are required could hit you with a $500 fine. Studded tires don’t meet the chain requirement. You will still need to carry chains even if you have studded tires. Practice installing the chains so you can put them on even during harsh weather conditions. 

The Red Cross offers its own list of winter travel tips. It suggests bringing along newspapers to be used for insulation in a pinch–and plastic bags for sanitation purposes if you are stranded in the car with no bathroom nearby. Another suggestion is to bring along hot broth in a thermos. 

Finally, the Red Cross advises you to do your winter driving during daylight and, if possible, have at least one other person traveling with you. Make sure someone else knows your route and when you expect to arrive. If you don’t show up on time, searchers will know where to look for you. The Red Cross further advises, “Make frequent stops. During long trips rotate drivers. If you are too tired to drive, stop and get some rest. 

American Red Cross Northwest Region

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