Late last month, over 100 vehicles were involved in a massive, chain-reaction pileup on I-41 south in eastern Wisconsin. One person was killed and dozens more were injured. The crash occurred during whiteout conditions.
Meanwhile, numerous people in Wisconsin and Minnesota had to be rescued from their cars. Conditions were so bad that officials urged people to refrain from travel. Those caught in the blizzard were told to remain in their cars and wait for help.
Blowing snow can create zero-visibility conditions. A blizzard with high winds can be life-threatening. If at all possible, drivers should stay off the roads in these conditions — but what should you do if you’re caught in a whiteout?
Keep it slow and steady
Seed limits are set with summer conditions in mind. Whenever conditions are snowy or icy, slow down. Keep checking your speedometer so you don’t inadvertently speed up.
- Don’t tailgate. You may need more time to slow down than you think, so give plenty of room to the car in front of you.
- Be prepared for black ice. Wintry conditions can ice up the pavement, and any abrupt change in your vehicle’s trajectory could cause you to spin.
- Drive smoothly and don’t change lanes or pass. Don’t speed up or slow down abruptly. Stay in your lane and avoid the urge to pass — the low visibility means you might not see other vehicles.
- Defrost your front and rear windows. Keep in mind that the recirculation function may not help if the external air is full of moisture. If you’re having trouble defrosting, toggle the recirculate button to the other position.
- Don’t use cruise control. Even the small tap on your brakes to halt the cruise control could send you into a skid. Let your car decelerate naturally as much as possible before braking.
- Use your low beams or fog lights and look ahead. Fog lights and low beams can help, while high beams tend to reflect off the oncoming snow and ice particles. Also, don’t get mesmerized by the taillights in front of you — pay attention to what’s coming up.
- Don’t get distracted. If any conditions require your full attention, whiteout conditions do.
- You may need to change routes. To get up-to-date information about road closures, keep your radio tuned to a station covering weather and road conditions. Announcers often provide alternate routes.
- As a last resort, be ready to pull over. If the whiteout gets bad enough that you can’t see the road, it’s time to get off the road as soon and as safely as possible. This can be challenging but, except in a true emergency, you need to find a place to pull off besides the side of the road. A car parked on the side of the road may be invisible and create a hazard for other drivers.
When you do pull over, try to remain visible by activating your four-way flashers. If you have a cellphone, call 911 with your location. Check that your tailpipe is not obstructed by snow, then remain in your vehicle, staying as warm as possible, and wait for conditions to improve or for help to arrive.
We all hope that there won’t be any more snow this season, but we’re probably in for more heavy weather. Now is the time to create an emergency kit for your car so you’ll have what you need to handle common situations. Pack a shovel, ice melt or cat litter and a blanket to start. Keep your cellphone charged and always carry it with you. Stay safe out there!