Direct Line magazine

Driving in winter weather

Updated on: 11 March 2020

A road is covered in snow

Train delays, road closures and grounded aeroplanes are all common side-effects of winter weather conditions.

The number of cars breaking down almost doubles during the colder months, and you don’t want to be stuck roadside in sub-zero temperatures.

You can stay safe behind the wheel by learning the best ways to tackle snow, ice, and fog. But it’s best to stay off the roads if the weather is dangerous.

Prepare your car

If your car hasn’t had a service in a while, it’s a good idea to get one before the dark nights set in.

If you’re not due a service then try some self-checks:

  • Lights are clean and working

  • Windscreen wipers are clean and ready for action

  • Tyres are in good condition – pumped up with good tread

  • The brakes are working

  • Fluids are topped up – especially anti-freeze, which can be mixed with your windscreen wash (the colder it is, the more anti-freeze you’ll need).

  • Keep extra layers of clothing and a couple of blankets packed in the boot for winter emergencies.

On the road


  1. 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.

  2. Scrape off all the snow from your windows so you can see. 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.

  3. Your lights should also be cleared of snow.

  4. 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.

  5. It’s obvious, but easy to forget to leave a large gap between you and the car in front. Skidding is a constant danger.

  6. Try and stick to gritted roads. Don’t drive over wheel-tracks as compressed snow is icy and more slippery than fresh snow.

  7. 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 ten minutes earlier so you have more time to de-ice your car.

  3. Never pour boiling water onto your windscreen as it 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 hit 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. Opt for third or fourth gear to prevent skidding if you’re driving down any steep hills.

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.

  1. If you break down on the motorway, pull over on the hard shoulder. Get out of the car on the left-hand side and stand behind the metal barrier. Use blankets and extra clothes to stay warm.

  2. If you’re not on the motorway, then 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.

  3. Call your breakdown recovery service for emergency assistance.

  4. Keep a piece of carpet, some flattened cardboard or a bag of sand in the boot, which can be used to get better traction if your wheels are left spinning in the slush.

  5. If it’s really 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 will drop because you’ll be wet.

  6. 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 about preparation and precaution. Don’t drive too fast, and be aware of the specific hazards each wintry condition brings.

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