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Could you survive 15+ hours in your car? What you need to prepare for winter emergencies

Motorists being stranded for hours on a highway in Virginia has highlighted the need to keep certain emergency supplies in your car during the winter.
A nightmarish traffic jam that stranded some drivers for up to 19 hours in Virginia on Monday and Tuesday has brought attention to the need for drivers to have emergency kits in their cars.
A nightmarish traffic jam that stranded some drivers for up to 19 hours in Virginia on Monday and Tuesday has brought attention to the need for drivers to have emergency kits in their cars.Steve Helber / AP

The traffic nightmare that unfolded in freezing temperatures along a 50-mile stretch of Interstate 95 in Virginia on Monday into Tuesday has highlighted the need for motorists to equip their vehicles with necessary supplies in case of a similar emergency.

Some drivers were stranded for at least 19 hours after a crash involving multiple vehicles brought traffic to a halt while more than a foot of snow fell in the region.

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine was caught in the chaos, along with NBC News correspondent Josh Lederman, who described the scene on TODAY Tuesday after being stranded overnight for 10 hours in his car with his dog.

"I think the word is 'dystopian,'" he said. "You start asking yourself, 'Am I going to be here all night long? Am I going to sleep in my car? Should I turn my car off?'"

He described drivers turning off their cars and exiting their vehicles amid 26-degree temperatures as people ran low on food and water and automobiles ran out of gas.

The frightening scenario also serves as a reminder for drivers to be prepared in case of emergencies.

"This could happen at any time," David Bennett, manager of repair systems for AAA, told TODAY. "A pileup on a freeway can happen in good weather, so that’s why you should always be prepared."

Bennett referenced a list compiled by AAA of what should be in your car emergency kit, while also providing some extra tips.

Items you should have in your car include:

  • Cell phone and car charger
  • First-aid kit
  • Blanket
  • Drinking water/snacks for everyone in the car, including pets
  • Flashlight with extra fresh batteries
  • Rags, paper towels or pre-moistened wipes
  • Basic set of tools along with duct tape and car emergency warning devices such as road flares or reflectors
  • Ice scraper/snow brush
  • Jumper cables/jump pack
  • Traction aid such as sand, salt or non-clumping cat litter
  • Tarp, raincoat and gloves
  • Shovel

Extra gloves, winter hats and coats or blankets are obviously more important in the winter in case you run into a situation like the people who had to stay overnight in their cars in freezing weather on Monday.

Nonperishable food, like beef jerky, granola bars or energy bars, is also recommended. As Lederman noted on TODAY, while stuck in the traffic snarl he "had a lot of gum, but not enough granola bars, which is what you really want in that situation."

Keeping a gas can in the car with a few extra gallons in it is not recommended by AAA, but Bennett said that any motorists who choose to do so should use a container approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The gas can and should also be secured in the trunk so that it's not sloshing around, and the gas needs to be changed about every 30 days because it will go bad.

Drivers should also turn the engine off if it's clear that the traffic jam could be a long one.

"You don’t want to run it for an hour and not move," Bennett said. "You want to go ahead and shut it off and then start it up every half hour or hour to warm the inside of the cabin to make sure everybody is safe, but that’s where the extra blankets, hats and gloves come in handy."

Bennett also recommends people stay in their vehicles, especially if they are near the tail end of the traffic jam, because there could be a risk of being struck by an approaching vehicle or a chain reaction of cars colliding. If you are going to get out of the car, make sure your surroundings are safe.

AAA also recommends avoiding driving on the shoulders or medians of highways to try to get around the traffic jam.

"You want to keep them clear for first responders, tow trucks and emergency vehicles to get to the cause of the stoppage," Bennett said. "Also, you never know, what are the shoulders like? Do they slope off? Are there potholes? Your car could end up being disabled while you’re trying to move forward (on the shoulder) and then it's blocking emergency vehicles."