How to drive in winter

If you're heading out on the road this winter, it pays to be prepared for icy and treacherous conditions

Ian Dickson
Oct 26, 2021

As the winter closes in, so do darkness, lower temperatures and unpredictable weather. These poorer conditions can prove treacherous for those on the road, with the probability of breakdowns and accidents increasing significantly.

As the weather presenters always advise, you really should avoid travelling unless it's absolutely necessary when the weather is particularly bad. But at times when you have no choice, it is crucial to be well-prepared for winter to help prevent any potential mishaps or at least be able to cope should the worst happen.

We've put together this guide to help you get ready for winter driving and prepare for even the worst-case scenarios.

Preparation for winter driving

The first thing you need to do is make sure your car is ready for winter. Check your screenwash is topped up, as the salt used to grit the roads can build up on your windscreen. Check your oil and coolant levels, too, and top both up if necessary - you don't want any unnecessary mechanical issues to thwart your otherwise seamless progress.

Switch on your car’s lights and have a walk around to make sure they’re all working properly and wipe off any dirt that could obscure them. When driving in winter, always have your sidelights on even in daylight, switching to headlights when it’s dark - you never know when inclement weather could arrive. Remember that if you have daytime running lights (DRLs), these do not illuminate the back of your car but your sidelights will.

Make sure you have enough fuel in your car, too. It might sound obvious, but many motorists take it for granted. Running out of fuel is one of the most common reasons for the breakdown services to be called out.

It’s also worth keeping an emergency kit in the boot in case you get stranded. There have been instances of UK motorists being trapped in their cars overnight due to snow blocking roads.

That should include:

  • A shovel
  • A tow rope
  • A high-vis vest
  • A bottle of water and long-life food
  • A blanket
  • A warm jacket, hat and gloves
  • Sunglasses (for low sun)

Always clear any snow or ice off your car’s windows before setting off. Use an ice scraper and a can of deicer and avoid the temptation to defrost your car by starting the engine and going back into the house. Many cars are stolen in this way and your insurer won’t pay out - also, think of the environment!

As a general rule, you should stick to main roads where you can. These are more likely to have been gritted. Also be sure to use the brakes, accelerator and steering in a gentle manner, it’s often driver error that results in an accident.

Tyres for winter driving

Tyres deserve their own special mention here because you’ll want to make sure they are in tip-top shape. Braking on slippery winter roads takes longer and if your tyres don’t have enough tread you could be heading for a collision – and a big fine.

Make sure they have enough tread and meet the legal limit. The legal depth for tyres is 1.6mm across the central three-quarters of the tyre. You can check this by using a 20p coin. Insert it into the tyre’s grooves and if you can’t see the outer band of the coin your tyres are legal - of course, it is advisable to have more than the legal minimum of tread, especially in adverse conditions. Make sure your spare wheel is also in good condition and is fully inflated.

You might want to invest in some winter tyres, too. These are specially designed to give you more grip in the rain, ice and snow. In colder countries like Sweden and Finland, winter tyres are required by law. If you only really ever drive in town or on the motorway then you can probably get away without them, but if you live in more remote areas of the countryside they’re a worthwhile investment.

If you can’t justify the expense of winter tyres, snow socks are a great temporary solution for an occasional day or two of snow. They give you more grip in snow, but don’t use them on clear roads and don’t go more than 30mph when they’re on. Snow socks cost around £40 and you put them on your car’s driven wheels (for example, the front two on front-wheel-drive cars).

If you regularly head off on skiing holidays, it’s worth buying a set of snow chains, which give you more grip and are also a legal requirement in some countries.

Driving in rain

Living in the UK, we should be well versed in driving in the rain. The most important thing to do is slow down and leave more room between you and the car in front. Put on your lights but resist the temptation to switch on your fog lights: it’s illegal to use them unless visibility has dropped below 100 metres.

In wet conditions, your tyres have less grip and the braking distances are greater. The Highway Code says the braking distances will be double what they are in the dry. If you hit a patch of standing water you could be at risk of aquaplaning. If your car does start to lose grip, ease off the accelerator, avoid touching the brake pedal and if necessary, steer into the direction of the skid.

Watch out for leaves on country roads, particularly on bends. Wet leaves can be as slippery as ice so try to avoid heavy braking and acceleration.

What to do when you encounter black ice

Black ice is one of the most dangerous things you can encounter on the road. It’s called black ice because it’s transparent and you can see the road surface below it. It occurs when the road is wet from light rain or mist that has frozen, coating the road surface in a thin but deadly clear ice. It might look like a wet patch of road until you drive over it. If your car hits black ice and starts to skid, it’s important not to panic. Take your foot off the accelerator but don’t touch the brakes and steer the car in the direction of the skid.

How to drive in snow

It might occur for only a few days a year in the UK, but snow can still cause us many issues. If you don’t really need to travel then it’s best to stay at home. Go sledging or build a snowman instead. If you must travel, then make sure you clear all the snow from your car including the roof. Snow can blow off and into the path of other cars as you drive. Plan your route carefully, too. Make sure the roads you intend to travel on aren’t blocked.

When driving in snow:

  • Put your headlights on
  • Steer, brake and accelerate smoothly
  • Accelerate gently. Pull off in second gear
  • Keep a long distance between you and the car in front
  • Maintain a constant speed driving up hills and try and stay in one gear
  • Use a low gear going downhill and try to avoid braking
  • Brake gently and early before bends
  • If your car starts to skid steer into it. Don’t brake
  • If visibility drops below 100 metres, switch on your fog lights, but don’t forget to turn them off when visibility improves

 

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