The UK's generally mild climate means that many drivers are unaccustomed to driving in freezing conditions. Unfortunately, treacherous winter weather, combined with floods and high winds, contribute to a significant number of accidents on Britain’s roads. Here’s our advice for safe driving during periods of sub-zero weather.
• Drive only if it is necessary
• Prepare before you leave
• Check your tyres and consider getting winter tyres
• Clear snow and ice from your vehicle
• Use headlights appropriately
• Keep your distance
• Watch your speed
• Know how to deal with skidding
• Stay aware of your surroundings in poor visibility
First, you need to ask yourself if your journey is really that urgent or important? Not getting in your car removes all risks of having a cold weather driving accident. Your journey might feel important but weigh up the risk of getting stranded by an icy breakdown, being in a collision, or being taken by surprise by a sudden change in weather.
A collision is only one of the hazards associated with icy weather driving. We have all seen news reports of drivers forced to abandon their cars or sleep in them while waiting for the road ahead to open. All it takes is a snow drift or an accident ahead for you to be stuck in your car for several hours at best, days at worst.
Before you leave
Apart from the planning the route, think about how to cope with the driving itself and how you’ll cope if something goes wrong.
Pack supplies to keep in the car. A well-prepared driver would have food and water, warm clothing and a blanket, a torch, a first aid kit, hazard warning signs, a fully charged mobile phone, jump leads, a shovel, an ice scraper, de-icing fluid, plus some grit, sand or cat litter.
Stick to major roads wherever possible. These roads are more likely to have been cleared or gritted — giving you the best chance of getting to your destination. On a remote road, you have less chance of passing cars to help should you get stuck.
Start with a full fuel tank and top up on long journeys when possible. If you get stuck you can run the engine to keep warm but remember to get out of the car regularly to clear snow from the exhaust. Should the exhaust get blocked by falling snow or ice when the car is stationary, carbon monoxide can build up within the car with potentially fatal consequences.
Tyre condition and pressure is vital. Check your tyre tread depths, and make sure you have at least 3mm of tread.
Consider getting a set of winter tyres fitted, as these improve grip and traction in cold weather considerably. This is a legal requirement in a lot of developed nations, as winter tyres drastically enhance your control of the car when the temperature falls.
Check the fluid levels in your car. Top up oil and make sure there is an additive in the screenwash to stop it from freezing and cracking the pipes. If you've spent the year topping your screen wash up with tap water, now's the time to rectify the situation.
Shorter journeys can deplete a car’s battery, and in cold conditions one that's low on charge might not be able to start the car. If you drive only a short distance before switching off, you may find it difficult to start again.
Make sure you know how to use your car heater to effectively clear the mist from the inside of the car’s windows. Know how to turn on the heated rear screen (and heated front screen in some models).
Clear ice from the whole of your windscreen – not just a hole for you to see through. Clear snow from side and rear windows, front and rear lights, door mirrors, number plates, and from front and rear parking cameras, if you have them. It’s tempting to use hot water, but the temperature difference can crack what you’re clearing. It’s best to use a de-icing fluid or scraper instead.
Check the windscreen wipers aren’t stuck to the screen. It’s a common problem in icy weather and you can rip off the rubber blades when you turn them on. You can avoid this by lifting the wipers into their upright position overnight in advance of icy weather.
One of the harder jobs is clearing snow from the top of the car. When you drive off, the snow can fall off in one big clump, potentially obscuring visibility and damaging something.
Use your headlights
When snow falls, try your headlights in the dipped beam setting. This should improve your vision whilst enabling other drivers to see you in good time.
If you have automatic headlamps, make sure they have activated – or better still, override them manually by turning the headlamp switch to the dipped beam setting.
Dipped beam headlamps can be kept on when not snowing, to maintain visibility through mist and murk, and because snow on the ground can increase glare on sunny days.
Safety advice is to avoid your fog lamps unless visibility is very poor – rear fog lamps could dazzle other road users, and the effect is intensified when there is spray from melted snow coming out from the rear of the car. Front fog lamps have the same effect, but for cars ahead of you, especially when the white snow on the road is reflecting the light back up at them.
The Highway Code says that you should only use your fog lamps when the visibility drops below 100m.
Keep your distance
Stopping distances increase in icy conditions. It can take as much as 10 times longer to stop on an icy road as it does on a dry one. If you can, you should increase the distance between you and the car you’re following by about that much. A good rule of thumb is that you should be around 20 seconds behind the car in front of you if the road is icy.
Driving in ice and snow requires a different driving style that many people don’t get the opportunity to practise:
• All controls – steering, acceleration, and brake – should be used in a smooth, slow and progressive manner. Drive gently and avoid spinning the wheels.
• In a manual car, move away slowly by slipping the clutch gently, keeping the engine revs low. Lower revs mean the engine is turning more slowly, which reduces the risk of wheelspin.
• If you’re driving an automatic or four-wheel-drive car, check to see whether it has a low-ratio mode. This can be indicated by a snowflake symbol or an ‘L’ on a switch near to the gear lever. Avoid using ‘sport’ mode in an automatic car.
Dealing with skidding
If you hit a patch of slippery road and you feel the car start to skid, lift your foot off the accelerator and allow the speed to drop by itself until you regain control. Don’t panic. General advice is to avoid using the brakes if possible, as breaking can prolong the skid.
The advice from DefensiveDriving.com is:
Focus on a driving target a safe distance ahead of you.
A four-wheel skid occurs when the entire car starts drifting in a direction other than the driver’s intended course. This type of skid tends to occur when a driver enters a curve too quickly.
If your car enters a front-wheel skid, ease off the accelerator. If you are driving a car with manual transmission, depress the clutch. With your eyes focused on your “target”, try to steer the car back on course. If you don’t regain control of the car within 2-3 seconds, THEN depress the brake lightly. If your car doesn’t have anti-lock (ABS) brakes, pump the brakes lightly.
Braking will help to transfer power to the front of the car; braking too suddenly, however, can cause the wheels to lock, which will make the skid worse.
A rear will skid occurs when the back end of the car slides out to the right or left; this is also known as “fishtailing.
At some point, at least one person has probably told you to “turn into the skid.” He or she was talking about what to do if your car fishtails. However, this advice can be misleading. Say that the back end of your car suddenly slides out to the right; you don’t want to turn your wheel sharply to the right as well, especially if you are traveling at a high speed. You want to turn to the right just enough to straighten out the car, i.e. bring the front wheels back in line with the rear wheels. This is why focusing on a target is helpful: it prevents you from “over-correcting.”
As you turn, slowly ease off the accelerator. Avoid the temptation to brake suddenly.
You can find video tutorials online for dealing with skids.
Stay aware of your surroundings in poor visibility
Take corners and bends slowly to give you more time to react if you come across an obstacle, such as a fallen branch, a snowdrift, or a slow-moving vehicle.
There are lots of slow-moving vehicles in snowy conditions, such as snowploughs and gritting lorries. Care should be taken when overtaking these, especially snowploughs – don’t forget that the road in front of the plough won’t have been cleared of snow.
If a driver skids or slips on the snow next to you, it pays to be aware of what’s going on left, right and to the rear. Being aware of what’s happening in front isn’t enough in icy conditions.
If another driver tailgates you, don’t be tempted to react. It’s more sensible to concentrate on your own driving — pulling over to let them pass where it is safe to do so.
For more information on driving in icy conditions, view the Highway Code guide.
Source: Highway Code UK, the BBC, RAC and DefensiveDriving.com