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Drivers should plan for worst to stay safe

Most of us think nothing of hopping in our cars to drive a couple of hours down the Interstate. It’s something we’ve done hundreds or thousands of times with little more sense of risk than walking down the hallway from our living rooms to our bedrooms.

A story in last Sunday’s Herald pointed out, however, that there’s considerably more risk involved than we like to think about. The story of Lyndon Schewe — whose car left Interstate 90 between Austin and Albert Lea, then rolled down into a creek where it was unseen for 6 1⁄2 hours — should serve as a tale of caution for everyone who drives.

There’s an important lesson to be taken from Mr. Schewe’s ordeal: Be prepared. And not only in the way that we are traditionally warned to be prepared, with candles, blankets, tow ropes, etc.

We’re talking about a new kind of preparation that matches the way we live in the 21st Century.

It’s clear from his story that this driver could have been any of us — particularly in that his cell phone was on the seat next to him as he drove. It’s a handy location for a phone, and the seat, a cup-holder or the center console are where the vast majority of drivers leave theirs while enroute.

The convenience decreases substantially, however, when one’s car is upside down and every loose object has been tossed about. It’s less useful yet when the churning of a rollover leaves the driver and passengers injured.

In those circumstances, a cell phone lying five feet away on the car’s ceiling is about as useful as a lump of lead.

There’s an easy solution to the problem: Put your cell phone in your coat pocket. While that works best during the winter, when most of us are wearing coats or sweatshirts with pockets. It’s harder to do during warm weather. But, then, the risk of freezing to death is also somewhat less at that time of year, so maybe it balances out.

More and more, cell phones have become the resource that people expect will pull them out of trouble. We need to update our preparedness checklists to include “secure location for phone.”

Not that a phone alone is particularly good insurance. As a way to get help in a crisis, the cell phone is loaded with drawbacks. After all, anything with a battery can fail; a cell phone that gets wet seldom works correctly afterwards; and there remain many places where a reliable signal can’t be found — usually the exact places where one is most likely to need help.

That good old-fashioned planning still makes sense was evident back around Christmas when a family traveling across the southern plain states got their 4WD vehicle stuck in a blizzard and ended up spending several days trapped inside. The interviews afterward illustrated that while their days in a snow bank might have been unavoidable, the family would have been a lot less worried about surviving if they’d been packing some basic winter equipment, such as sleeping bags, a shovel, a candle and so on — the same stuff we’ve been told for years to keep in our cars.

And for those who drive smaller cars equipped with a trunk, rather than some kind of hatch back or cargo area, it’s worth thinking about keeping that gear in the car itself rather than back in the trunk. Presumably for better security, many manufacturers seem to be building trunks that can’t be accessed from inside the car — which means that whatever’s stored there might not be reachable in an emergency.

If that seems far-fetched, just consider this mild winter’s toll of rollovers and strandings, including the example that played out — fortunately, with a happy ending — a few miles from Austin earlier this month. It could happen to anyone.