In 1991, I was stationed at Fort Carson, Colo., and had decided to use some leave and drive back home to Georgia. The extended forecast called for snow, but I figured I would be long gone before it arrived. The skies were clear the morning I left, so I neglected to check the weather and the road conditions for my route. Everything was going as planned when I started to see snow on the roadsides.

I didn't even have a chance to give the snow much thought when my car started sliding out of control. I'd driven over a patch of black ice and was now heading toward the edge of the road. I tried to correct my direction of travel, but the car kept sliding. I eventually ended up in a ditch on the side of the road.

Since I did not prepare properly, I was now stuck on the side of the road in a ditch without any blankets or food. And being that this was the early 1990s, I -- like most folks at that time -- didn't have a cellphone I could use to call for help. Fortunately, I only had to wait about an hour before another motorist came by and pulled my car out of the ditch. Once back on the road, I was able to continue my trip without any further incidents.

This experience made me realize how important it is to fully prepare for a trip -- regardless the weather conditions, which can change in an instant. Before even getting on the road, I inspect my vehicle's ignition, battery, headlights and taillights, brakes, wipers, fuel and exhaust systems, heater/defroster, and tires. Once I'm sure everything is in good working order, I adhere to the following winter driving tips from the Texas Department of Transportation:

• Check the road conditions in your area and stay tuned to local news broadcasts for more information on roadway and weather conditions.
• Remove snow and ice from your vehicle before you drive, making sure the headlights and taillights are visible.
• Accelerate slowly.
• Increase your following distance.
• Brake gently in slow, steady strokes to see how much traction you have, and begin braking early when approaching intersections or stops.
• Approach bridges, shaded spots, overpasses and turns slowly.
• Never use cruise control in winter driving conditions.
• Use non-freezing windshield washer fluid.
• Use snow tires and/or chains (where allowed).
It's also a good idea to keep a winter survival kit in your vehicle in case of an emergency. According to the Texas DOT, a good kit should include at least the following items:
• Flares
• Blankets and warm clothes
• Shovel and scraper
• Flashlight and batteries
• Candles or Sterno flame
• Lighter or matches
• First-aid kit
• Booster cables
• Chain/tow strap
• Non-perishable food
• Water

Winter driving can pose risks for even the most experienced drivers. However, being properly prepared can mean the difference between safely reaching your destination and being left out in the cold.