Apps aid wintertime drivers

Mark Henricks

If you find yourself stuck in your car during a winter storm, there’s an app for that. Actually, there are several smartphone apps that can help you and your loved ones get home safely in the event you slide into a ditch during a blizzard or experience a similar wintertime emergency.

The newest app for winter driving emergencies is the Winter Survival Kit. It was developed by North Dakota State University and Myriad Devices under a grant from the U.S Department of Agriculture. This free app runs on iPhone and Android devices.

The app features a calculator to help you figure out how long you can run your engine without running out of gas. Another tool alerts stranded motorists every half-hour to make sure snow hasn’t blocked the vehicle’s tailpipe, possibly funneling deadly carbon monoxide gas into the passenger cabin. The app also lets you store emergency contact numbers for auto insurance and roadside assistance, and provides tips on how to survive until help arrives.

If you're stranded on the road in winter, the best advice is to stay with your car, says North Dakota State web specialist Bob Bertsch, who helped develop the Winter Survival Kit app.

“If you see a light in the distance and walk to get help, that’s the most dangerous thing you can do,” Bertsch says. “So when we developed the app, we tried to do things that could give people peace of mind and help them stay in their car throughout the ordeal until they could be rescued.”

Another free emergency app for iPhone and Android devices, with a BlackBerry version in the works, comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The FEMA app includes tips on assembling a disaster preparedness kit. Items that should go into this kit include a shovel, ice scraper, flashlight, battery-powered radio, food and water, blankets, flares, tow rope, booster cables and fluorescent distress flag.

One FEMA-recommended item that could be a lifesaver is a solar-powered recharger to keep your phone working when you need it most. In the “Prepare Your Car” portion of an extensive how-to guide on preparing disasters, the app suggests reducing chances of getting stranded by having mechanics periodically check your car's tires, antifreeze, battery, exhaust system, fuel system, heater, thermostat and windshield wipers.

FEMA also has a smartphone-friendly mobile website. It has links to local weather forecasts and a tool for locating nearby disaster recovery centers in case of a winter storm. There’s also a link to the Red Cross’ Safe and Well online service, which alerts family and friends that you're safe and helps people search for loved ones. Furthermore, FEMA has a text-messaging service to help people find the nearest shelter. To use it, text SHELTER and your Zip code to 43362 (4FEMA).

For purely weather-related information, the Weather Channel app for the iPhone provides free access to regional radar maps, severe weather alerts, and daily, hourly and long-range forecasts. In case of injury or illness while stranded, the Emergency First Aid & Treatment Guide app for iPhone, Android and Blackberry devices puts medical treatment information at your fingertips for 99 cents. A section on cold-weather emergencies describes frostbite remedies.

After the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, smartphone users swarmed to general-purpose catastrophe apps like Disaster Alert, a free app for iPhone and Android devices. This app gives you information on weather-related and other disasters such as well as earthquakes and volcanoes. Because it's connected to the Pacific Disaster Center, you may be able to get information on developing storms and other crises up to half an hour before conventional media outlets spread the word.

The best way to deal with stranding is to avoid it in the first place, and one of the most common and easily preventable causes of stranding is running out of gas. Gas Buddy, a free app for users of Android, BlackBerry, iPhone and Windows devices, helps you find nearby gas stations. FEMA recommends keep your gas tank at least half full when taking a wintertime trip.

While phones can help in an emergency, they also can cause problems. For instance, a high volume of cellphone calls can jam communication networks. For that reason, FEMA recommends keeping calls to a few minutes or less in the event of a large-scale emergency. In fact, don’t call at all if you can communicate by text message, Twitter or Facebook. Likewise, avoid looking at streaming videos or listening to streaming music; those activities are bandwidth hogs.

One final tip: Avoid distracted driving while you're on the road during winter months. “If you do not have a hands-free device in your car,” FEMA warns, “stop driving or pull over to the side of the road before making a call."

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