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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soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Ted F.

    Hey 'Becca, They say that if you're stuck in the snow, you should turn your car on for about 10 minutes per hour to warm things up. That way, you will hopefully neither freeze, nor run out of gas.

    It sounds like you were lucky to get to a motel, and to find a vacancy there.

    January 11, 2010 at 23:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Kraig Rasool

    I do believe that humans sometimes think they are invincible and
    forget that mother nature has all the power in one finger...I drove once
    from DC to Texas during what started out as good weather(although I
    was giving wrong directions)...I literally drove down thru Georgia and
    Alabama just to get to Texas which took a whopping 39 hours...suffice
    to say I also was pummeled with tornado winds while driving in
    Texas and also dust storms which made me a instant member of the
    blind society...However because I had a jeep and 45 peanut-butter and
    jelly sandwiches and at the time a car-phone I just knew I was king
    of the road and nothing could prevent me from my destination....I was'
    ill-prepared and could have been hurt...Front tire with a nail and no
    emergency equipment...but also debit cracked and not working....It
    was a nightmare., now as I am older I listen to all the necessary items
    needed on a journey cause you never know which finger mother nature will throw at you.

    January 12, 2010 at 12:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Colin

    8. Listen to your dad next time...he's older & wiser for a reason.

    For those in northern climates, I would like to add to your list. Hat, gloves, boots, snow shovel, and window washing fluid. The washing fluid is more important than many realize...your vision can get quite impaired if you've run out of fluid and the snow & salt start mucking up your windshield.

    January 14, 2010 at 18:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Fredo

    I just got caught in a big ice storm on Interstate 40 between Amarillo TX and Tucumcari NM. I saw a lot of people driving 70 and finding out that they didn't have any control on glare ice. 2 Fatalities.
    My advice: Slow Down!

    January 14, 2010 at 18:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Mom

    Next time, listen to your father.

    January 14, 2010 at 18:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Aunt Paula

    Always listen to you Dad.
    It was lucky you gassed up before getting stuck sleeping in the car. Moral: No point in being fearless and in a hurry!

    January 16, 2010 at 11:00 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.