Winter's beauty can be deadly

  • Published
  • By Lisa Gonzales
  • Air Force Safety Center

As winter approaches, days are colder, snow begins to fall and the calmness of the season can be anticipated; however, the season can also bring stress, anxiety, frustration and constant fatigue when thoughts turn to the holidays and the multitude of activities that comes with them.

Trips to visit family and friends, forgotten projects, decorating, snow shoveling, planning the menu for the holiday feast or participating in adventurous winter sports activities can be a recipe for disaster if proper risk management is not added to the mix.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, nearly 900 people are killed, along with almost 76,000 injured in vehicle crashes during snowfall or sleet every year. Subsequently, more than 1,300 people are killed and more than 116,800 are injured in vehicle crashes on snowy, slushy or icy roads annually.

The Department of the Air Force has made some headway in combating winter motor vehicle mishaps. Over the last five years, the DAF has seen a more than 24% decrease in motor vehicle injuries, including motorcycles, during the November through April time period.  

Having a plan goes a long way to ensuring a safe arrival when traveling during the winter season. Part of that plan is to keep family and friends apprised of travel details over the course of the trip.

Plan ahead with proper maintenance on your vehicle, tire rotation, tune up and oil change. Pay special attention to the battery, windshield wipers, coolant and other systems that take a beating during cold weather. Pack non-perishable food, blankets, water and a roadside emergency kit with a flashlight, extra batteries, portable shovel, booster cables, first aid kit, ice scraper, and kitty litter to prepare and safeguard yourself and your passengers.

Weather is key during this time of year. Continuously assess the risks by monitoring the weather before a trip and while underway. This will help mitigate the chance of getting stuck or into an accident due to bad weather, even if it means delaying your trip. Weather is unpredictable and if caught in a snowstorm – remember to drive slowly, increase following distance, accelerate and decelerate slowly, or pull over in a safe location to wait it out.

If stuck in the snow – stay with the vehicle, tie a bright colored cloth on the antenna, use flashers, and remove snow away from the exhaust pipe. Occupants can keep warm by using any available blankets or clothes and should conserve fuel by only running the vehicle and heater long enough to remove the chill.

Exhaustion is another risk many take while traveling in winter conditions. Pushing the body to its limits to get a little further down the road. Get plenty of rest, driving fatigued is always dangerous, but add winter weather and it can become deadly. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that the number of fatalities involving a drowsy driver was 697 or 1.9 percent of total fatalities in 2019.

Other tips include avoiding that phone call or text while driving, stay focused, if you must take a call – pull over at a rest stop or safe location, never while you are driving. Drinking alcohol impairs the ability to make sound decisions and affects response time – never get behind the wheel after drinking, stay where you are or call for a ride share or taxi.

If plans are to stay home this year to relax, work on home projects, decorate, or spend time with family and friends, remember to do it safely.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that on average, there are about 200 decorating-related injuries each day during the holiday season, with about half of the incidents involving falls.

Do-it-yourself projects or decorating hold their own risks, get the proper tools and training for your DIY projects. If using a ladder to hang decorations indoors or out, remember to keep three points of contact and have someone hold the ladder. Make sure to use the correct lights for indoors and outdoors, purchase lights that have been tested from an independent testing laboratory and use no more than three standard size lights sets per extension cord.

Snowfall adds another hazard to think about at home. Not only does this become a slipping hazard, but the snow removal has its own inherent risks. According to the National Safety Council thousands of injuries and as many at 100 deaths occur each year from snow shoveling.

Before it starts to snow, clear driveways of debris and drop deicer to help it from sticking. Snow accumulates quickly, so if you decide to go outside to shovel it, remember to stretch beforehand to warm up your muscles, push the snow rather than lift it, if you have to lift use your legs and knees,  not your back, pace yourself and take frequent breaks to avoid exhaustion. When using a snow blower remove debris from the driveway beforehand to eliminate objects from becoming projectiles. Cold weather conditions can make you feel less thirsty, so remember to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.

All that work to get the home ready for the holidays could leave one very hungry, so let’s stop and think about food preparation.

Before beginning to prepare the holiday feast, remember the four steps of safe food handling.

  1. Always wash your hands in warm soapy water before and after handling food and wash surfaces often.
  2. Do not cross-contaminate foods by using the same cutting boards and knives.
  3. Always cook food to the correct temperature – thaw the turkey in the refrigerator and don’t wash it, cooking to 165 degrees will kill bacteria, check it with a food thermometer.
  4. Refrigerate left-overs as soon as possible but within two hours to prevent food poisoning.

Winter weather can bring out the winter sports enthusiast in all of us, but whether skiing, snowboarding or ice skating, remember these activities, although thrilling, can also be dangerous. Being aware of the dangers can help you mitigate them. Take a class to learn and build on what it takes to maneuver on skis, snowboards or skates and always take it slow and stay within your skill level.

The Department of the Air Force has seen a 26% decrease in on- and off-duty winter sports injuries from 2017 to 2021. While a reduction in the numbers are good, the goal is always zero.

Additional information on winter safety can be found at: