January 11th, 2010
12:50 PM ET

Dangerous drives

By Rebecca Leibowitz
CNN Medical Intern

Talk about an "I-told-you-so" moment. On the night before my drive from my Atlanta school to home in Washington, D.C., I had a conversation with my dad that he won’t soon forget. “Becca,” he warned, “You shouldn’t leave tomorrow. It’s supposed to snow, and driving could be very dangerous.” “Dad, I’ll be fine!” I yelled, ignoring his advice. “Don’t worry about it! See you tomorrow night.” Fat chance.

I left Atlanta on Friday, December 18th, the day the 2009 blizzard began to pummel the southeastern United States. The snow began falling about two hours into my drive, changing very quickly from a pretty distraction to a blinding and dangerous terror. Around 9:30 pm, after pulling off the highway to get gas, I re-entered I-81 in southwest Virginia to find traffic at a standstill. Not crawling – completely stopped. We did not move again until 10:30 am the next morning. My passenger and I had no choice but to sleep in my car – rolling all the windows down in order to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning and covering our bodies with whatever we could find to keep warm. When we finally got moving, we were told that the highway was closed in several places farther north. I checked into the nearest motel and collapsed there for the next 24 hours. When I finally left for home the next day, I passed dozens – maybe hundreds – of disabled cars.

The drive from Atlanta to Washington is supposed to take 10 hours with “normal” traffic. It took me three days.

Although I did make it back in one piece, there were many things I could have done differently to protect my health and safety along the way. What should you do to prepare yourself for a long drive? How can you minimize risk when confronted with difficult driving circumstances?

1. Invest in a car cell phone charger. Since most phone batteries don’t last for more than a few hours of talk time, this is indispensable.

2. Bring the essentials – and keep them in your car. You should have a blanket, non-perishable food, bottles of water, an ice scraper and flares in the trunk of your car at all times. You never know when you’ll need them.

3. Know that the GPS can help you, but it can also hurt you. Certain features of my GPS helped me out when I got into trouble, but it also led me into trouble in the first place by instructing me to take a more hazardous route. If snowfall is expected along your trip, take a major highway. They tend to be much better plowed and easier to drive on.

4. Don’t let your car’s gas gauge fall below a half a tank, and if you’re stopped in traffic for a long time, turn off your lights. You don’t want to run out of gas or drain your battery!

5. If you drive into inclement weather, don’t panic. Put on some relaxing music, drive cautiously and take deep breaths. If you feel uncomfortable or unsafe at any time, do not hesitate to pull over.

6. Avoid trucks and tractor trailers, as their large wheels can splash blinding slush and snow on your car’s windshield. Drive in the middle lanes of the highway, which tend to be better plowed, and avoid reckless drivers.

7. If you see someone in a bind and you have the time, help them out – but don’t put your safety at risk. I don’t know what I would have done if not for the generous strangers who helped push my car out of a snow bank or the friendly motel concierge who drew a map of how to avoid unplowed highways on the final leg of my trip.

Adverse driving conditions can materialize without warning. Just hours before I left Atlanta, forecasters predicted only moderate snowfall along my route. Ensure your health and safety as well as that of your passengers – prepare for the worst when embarking on a long road trip. Don’t make me say “I told you so!”

How do you prepare for an upcoming long drive? Have you been faced with a difficult driving experience? How did you cope?

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