Direct Line magazine

Driving in winter weather

Updated on: 20 November 2023

A road is covered in snow

Winter. It's the most wonderful time of the year. Well, maybe not for our cars.

The number of cars breaking down almost doubles during the colder months, and while there’s never a good time to be stuck on the roadside, it’s particularly frustrating in sub-zero temperatures.

It’s best to stay off the roads if the roads are dangerous. But, if you do have to drive over winter, here’s how to prepare your car and some advice to handle snow, ice, and fog.

Prepare your car

If your car hasn't had a service in a while, it's a good idea to get one booked before the weather really turns.

If you’re not due a service, then make sure you do the following checks:

  • Lights are clean and working – if you can, get someone to help you check all the lights around your car
  • Windscreen wipers are clean and ready for action
  • Tyres are in good condition – check their pressure and their tread
  • The brakes are working as expected
  • All your fluids are topped up (especially anti-freeze) – anti-freeze can be mixed with your windscreen wash (the colder it is, the more anti-freeze you’ll need)

It’s worth keeping some extra layers of clothing and a couple of blankets packed in the boot for winter emergencies.

It can also be handy to keep a piece of carpet, some flattened cardboard, or a bag of sand in the boot. This will help if you get stuck in slush and you need to get better traction to set off.

Driving advice (whatever the weather)


If snow is coming down thick and fast, it’s likely unsafe to be on the road. Only get behind the wheel if it’s absolutely necessary.

If you do need to drive, here’s some advice:

  1. Scrape off all the snow from your windows and lights so you can see clearly. You should also remove snow from the roof, as it could all slide down and cover the windscreen once you start moving or fly off the back into a car behind you.
  2. Accelerate gently when it’s time to get moving. Pull off in second gear to reduce wheel slip, and if you’re driving an automatic try putting it into W (winter) mode if you have it.
  3. Leave a large gap between you and the car in front. Skidding is a constant danger.
  4. Try to use gritted roads.
  5. Don't drive over wheel-tracks as compressed snow is icy and more slippery than fresh snow.
  6. Don't brake hard. Take everything a lot slower and change gears as smoothly as you can.


  1. If you know it’s going to be an icy morning, put a windscreen cover over your car the evening before to reduce problems.
  2. Get up 10 minutes earlier so you have more time to de-ice your car.
  3. Never pour boiling water onto your windscreen as the grass could crack.
  4. Have a scraper and de-icer spray handy for clearing all windows, wing mirrors, and lights.
  5. It’s illegal and dangerous to pull away unless the windscreen is completely clear, so double-check this before driving.
  6. If your car starts to skid, don’t panic and don’t slam on the brakes. Calmly take your foot off the accelerator and turn your car into the direction of the skid. Once the car straightens, steer along the road.
  7. If you’re driving down any steep hills, opt for third or fourth gear to prevent skidding.
Remember - it's illegal and dangerous to pull away unless the windscreen is completely clear


  1. Your dipped headlights should be on if you can’t see further than the length of a football pitch (about 100m).
  2. Automatic headlights might not work in foggy conditions, so don’t rely on them.
  3. Fog lights aren’t obligatory. If visibility is reduced, then you might as well switch them on, but remember to switch them off when visibility improves.
  4. Fog can appear quickly, and your visibility can deteriorate in seconds, so watch your speed. Driving slowly will give you more time to react to hazards.
  5. If you come to a busy junction and can’t see a safe distance, unwind your window and listen for oncoming traffic.
  6. In foggy conditions the inside of your car can steam up, so turn on the air-conditioning to take the moisture out of the air or blast the windscreen with hot air.

What to do if you break down

If you’ve prepared your car for winter and followed all the safety measures, then you’ve lowered your risk of breaking down – but it can still happen.

If you’re on a motorway

If you break down on the motorway, pull over on the hard shoulder (or one of the Emergency Refuge Areas if you’re on a Smart motorway).

Get out of the car on the left-hand side and stand behind the metal barrier. Use blankets and extra clothes to stay warm.

Contact your local highways agency or the police before you contact your breakdown cover provider.

If you’re not on a motorway

If you’re not on the motorway, and it’s safe to do so, stay in the car where it’s warmer.

If you’ve got a full tank of petrol, run the car for 15 minutes every hour until help arrives. It’s a good idea to avoid leaving overhead lights or the radio running, as this will drain the car battery.

Contact your breakdown recovery service for emergency assistance as soon as you can.

If it’s snowing and very cold, don’t try and dig your car out of the snow. You’ll stay warm and build up a sweat while you’re digging, but once you get back in the car, your body temperature can drop quickly.

In sub-zero conditions, be sure to keep moving to prevent frostbite. Stretch your arms and legs, and huddle with other passengers to share body heat.

Driving in the winter months is all about preparation and precaution. Do the checks above, don’t drive too fast, and be aware of the specific hazards each wintry condition brings.

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