Driving in wintry weather

Rachel Greene-Taylor
Written by: Rachel Greene-Taylor
Posted on: 19 November 2015

Train delays, closed roads and grounded aeroplanes are all common side-effects of wintry weather.

The number of cars that break 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 always bear in mind; it’s best to stay off the roads if the weather is dangerous.

Prepare your car

If you haven’t had a service in a while, it’s a good idea to get one before the darker nights set in.

If you’re not due a service then do a couple of self-checks:

  • Make sure your 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).
  • Man topping up anti-freeze
  • Man checking tyres in snow

On the road

Snow

  1. First things first, if the snow is coming down thick and fast, it’s probably not safe to be on the road. Only get behind the wheel if your trip is absolutely necessary.
  2. Right, now that’s out the way, scrape off all the snow from your windows so you can see. And don’t forget to remove snow from the roof, otherwise 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. When it’s time to get moving, always accelerate gently. Try pulling off in second gear to reduce wheel slip, and if you’re driving an automatic try putting it into W (winter) mode.
  5. Leave a large gap between you and the car in front. It might sound obvious, but skidding is a constant danger.
  6. Try and stick to gritted roads. If the road isn’t gritted, don’t drive over wheel-tracks as compressed snow is normally more slippery than fresh snow.
  7. Don’t brake hard. Take everything a lot slower, and change gears as smoothly as you can.

Ice

  1. If you know it’s going to be an icy morning, try putting a windscreen cover over your car the evening before.
  2. Get up ten minutes earlier so you have a bit more time to de-ice your car.
  3. Never pour boiling water onto your windscreen – it could crack.
  4. Have a scraper and de-icer spray handy, and don’t forget to do all the windows – including your wing mirrors and the car’s lights.
  5. Unless the windscreen is completely clear, it’s dangerous (and illegal) to pull away. Ducking to see through visible gaps is big no-no.
  6. Don’t panic if your car goes into a skid – and don’t brake. Stay calm and take your foot slightly 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.
Unless the windscreen is completely clear, it’s dangerous (and illegal) to pull away

Fog

  1. If you can’t see further than the length of a football pitch (about 100m) then your dipped headlights should be on.
  2. Don’t rely on automatic headlights; they might not work in foggy conditions.
  3. Fog lights aren’t obligatory, but if visibility is seriously reduced then you might as well switch them on. Just make sure you switch them off when the visibility improves.
  4. Fog can descend quickly, and your visibility can deteriorate in seconds, so watch your speed. Don’t drive fast through fog.
  5. Drive slower – cars in front can creep up on you in fog, and you don’t want any nasty surprises.
  6. If you come to a busy junction and you can’t see, unwind your window and have a good listen for oncoming traffic.
  7. Inside your car can steam up in foggy conditions, so whack on the air-conditioning to take the moisture out 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, you’ll need to pull over on the hard shoulder. Get out the car on the left-hand side and stand behind the metal barrier. Keep spare layers and a couple of blankets packed in the boot for winter emergencies.
  2. If you’re not on the motorway, then stay in the car where it’s warmer. If you have a full tank of petrol, run the car for 15 minutes every hour until help arrives. But don’t leave overhead lights or the radio running, as this will drain the 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 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 your digging, but once you sit back in the car, you’ll be wet and your body temperature will drop.
  6. Keep moving in your car 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 individual hazards each wintry condition brings.

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