How to drive in winter

If you're heading out on the road this winter, it pays to know how to drive in those icy and treacherous conditions

Ian Dickson
Nov 30, 2020

We're very quickly making our way towards winter now. The days have got darker, temperatures have plummeted and life on the roads has become a more treacherous affair. It’s also the time of year when you’re more likely to be involved in an accident - according to telematics-based car insurance firm Insure The Box, road accidents increase by 20% on average during the winter months.

Not only will you want to make sure your car is well prepared for winter, you'll also want to make sure you are well prepared to drive it as well.

A combination of black ice, standing water, low sun and darker days means it’s best to be extra prepared during winter time to avoid an unplanned delay or an unfortunate accident.

As the weather presenters always advise, you should avoid travelling unless it's absolutely necessary when the weather is particularly bad. But we know there are times when you'll have no choice, so 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 screen wash 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 unnecesary mechanical issues to thwart your otherwise seemless 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 side lights on even in day light, switching to headlights when it’s dark - you never know when inclement weather could arrive.

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 the most common reason 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. And always drive smoothly, using the brakes, accelerator and steering gently, 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 an accident – 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. Make sure your spare wheel is in good condition as well 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 you can probably get away without them, but if you live in more remote areas of countryside they’re a worthwhile investment.

If you can’t justify the expense of winter tyres, snow socks are a great temporary solution for the occasional day or two of snow we get a year. 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.

Drivng in rain

Living in the UK, we should be well versed in driving in rain. The most important thing to do is slow down and leave more room between you and the car in front. Put on your side 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 and freezes, 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 down hill 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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