What you must know before driving on ice and snow
Thermometers are dropping across the country as Storm Deirdre brings sub-zero temperatures and freezing rain.
Winter is the time of year when most preparation is required to stay safe on the roads and avoid breakdowns.
Radiators can freeze, black ice on the roads can cause skidding and the low sun in the sky can dazzle drivers.
With that in mind, we wanted to share some tips with you on driving safely in the cold snap.
Here’s everything you need to know about preparing for bad weather and driving in the snow, including some handy hints from The AA’s comprehensive guide to winter driving.
And we also share the tips Richard Hammond picked up from rally experts.
Driving in snow and ice
- Wear comfortable, dry shoes for driving. Cumbersome, snow-covered boots will slip on the pedals.
- Pull away in second gear, easing your foot off the clutch gently to avoid wheel-spin.
- Up hill – avoid having to stop part way up by waiting until it is clear of other cars or by leaving plenty of room to the car in front. Keep a constant speed, choosing the most suitable gear well in advance to avoid having to change down on the hill.
- Down hill – reduce your speed before the hill, use a low gear and try to avoid using the brakes. Leave as much room as possible between you and the car in front.
- If you have to use brakes then apply them gently.
Top tip: If you get stuck, straighten the steering and clear the snow from the wheels.
Put a sack or old rug in front of the driving wheels to give the tyres some grip.
Once on the move again, try not to stop until you reach firmer ground.
Travel advice in winter
Lower your speed and mind the gap
Once on the road, reduce your speed and increase the distance between you and the car in front.
A quarter of motorists said they don’t always lower their average speed on icy roads and another 23% do not increase the distance between them and the vehicle in front.
Keeping a distance and reducing speed is important as icy conditions impair breaking performance and cause wheels to slip.
Remember, it’s the ice you can’t see that will catch you out. Black ice is clear snow or rainwater that freezes on darker road surfaces, rendering it invisible. And potentially deadly.
It’s a ‘trap’ many drivers fall victim to because of this much overlooked fact: the ground freezes much earlier than the air.
Indeed, road surfaces can become frozen while the air is over 4°c above freezing. This also means that it’s possible for black ice to form even when there’s no rain or snow – rather like dew that forms on the ground overnight.
So if your vehicle has an outside air temperature monitor – don’t trust it as a guide to road conditions.
What to do if you skid on the road
If there is ice on the road, you need to drive extremely carefully. Black ice can’t easily be seen, so drive gently and allow plenty of space between you and the car in front. Remember that stopping distances can be longer in ice and snow.
Dropping gears instead of braking can help prevent skidding.
Cold weather advice
Before you go…
- Get up at least 10 minutes early to give you time to prepare the car.
- Don’t drive off with a tiny hole cleared in the windscreen. Clear all windows using a scraper and de-icer.
- Use a cigarette lighter to warm a key for a frozen lock. Don’t breathe on the lock, as the moisture will condense and freeze.
- Plan routes to favour major roads which are more likely to have been cleared and gritted.
- Put safety before punctuality when the bad weather closes in. Allow extra time for winter journeys but be prepared for the inevitability of being late for work due to unexpected delay.
Make sure you have supplies to hand
If you’re involved in an accident or if one happens ahead of your vehicle – you could be stuck on the road for some time.
And if you happen to be in a vulnerable position, such as on a bend or the hard shoulder, it would be too risky to sit in your vehicle. So you need to be equipped to deal with the possibility of cold weather, both inside and outside your car.
Consider equipping yourself with an ‘emergency kit’, including essential items like a torch, snow shovel, spare gloves, blankets, warm clothes, water, snacks, a torch, batteries – even an extra mobile phone battery.
Halfords stocks this handy AA Emergency Winter Car Kit for £20 all year round.
Check your tyres
- At least 3mm of tread is recommended for winter motoring, and certainly no less than 2mm.
- DON’T reduce tyre pressures to get more grip – it doesn’t work and reduces stability.
- Consider changing to winter or all season tyres – these have a higher silica content in the tread which prevents it hardening at lower temperatures, and therefore gives better grip in cold, wet conditions.
Three ways to protect your car from frost
Cover the car windscreen with an old blanket or cardboard to help prevent frost settling.
Clear frosted windows with de-icer and a scraper. Also clear headlights and mirrors.
Avoid pouring warm water over your glass, as if there is already a chip, the temperature change shock could lead to a crack developing.
What’s wrong with your car?
- A continuous squealing noise as soon as the engine is started is a sign the water pump is frozen – it’s the fan belt slipping on the pulley. The cylinder block could be frozen too.
What do you do?
- Stop the engine immediately and allow it to thaw out. This may take several days unless the car can be moved to a heated garage.
- If the car begins to overheat a few miles from home it’s likely that the radiator has frozen, preventing coolant from circulating. Stop straight away to avoid serious damage and allow the radiator to thaw.
Conserve your power
- Antifreeze costs only a few pounds, but a frozen and cracked engine block will cost hundreds to repair.
- Most modern cars use long-life antifreeze. It’s important to use the right type and avoid mixing different types. Check the handbook or ask a dealer for advice.
- Some types of antifreeze may need to be changed after only two years. Check the manufacturer’s service schedule.
- You need a 50-50 mix of antifreeze and water in the cooling system for winter. This gives maximum protection down to -34 degrees centigrade and without it severe engine damage costing hundreds of pounds can occur.
Make sure your vision isn’t impaired
- Keep the windscreen and other windows clear – if your vision is obscured through dirt, snow or even sticker-infested car windows you could face a hefty fine.
- Clear snow from the roof as well as from windows as this can fall onto the windscreen obscuring your view. It can be a hazard to other road users as well.
- Dazzle from a low winter sun can be a particular problem.
- Use air conditioning for faster demisting and to reduce condensation on cold windows.
- Check windscreen wipers and replace if necessary.
- Make sure that wipers are switched off in the park position when leaving the car, when there’s risk of freezing. If you don’t and the blades freeze to the screen, you could damage the blades or wiper motor when you turn the ignition on.
- Top up Windscreen washer fluid and treat with a suitable additive to reduce the chance of freezing. Don’t use ordinary engine antifreeze as it will damage paintwork.
Richard Hammond’s top tips from the experts
During his time as the Mirror’s motoring columnist, the then Top Gear presenter shared his tips with readers on driving in wintry conditions after talking to rally experts at Prodrive, who were offering a winter driving course.
Did you notice last winter [2009-2010] that a lot of people in BMWs and Mercs were stuck on the side of the road? I did, and I wondered why it was happening.
According to Damian Harty, the engineer who’s sorting the chassis of the Prodrive-built MINI rally car, luxury vehicles are far from ideal when the road goes white.
He says: "Adding downward pressure to a tyre increases grip. The trouble with executive cars is that their weight is spread more evenly, thereby reducing weight on the driven rear wheels.
"Front-wheel drive family hatchbacks are better in slippery conditions because the weight of the engine in the front puts weight on to the wheels."
Surely four-wheel is the answer?
Damian says: "Yes, a four-wheel drive car has the advantage of sharing the driving force between four tyres, rather than two, so the wheels are less likely to lose traction and spin.
"However, while a four-wheel drive may be less likely to get stuck, it still has only four tyres on the road and is as likely to skid in a corner or slip when braking as any other car."
Harty’s top tip is to fit your car with special winter tyres.
He says: "I fit them to my car every winter because theyre by far the safest way to drive on both the snow and ice.
"They have a wider tread pattern to disperse snow and are made from a softer rubber than all-season tyres, which typically have most grip at temperatures above seven degrees.
"Winter tyres work better on wet and dry roads, too, not just snow."
So to the driving tips.
The most important things to remember when driving in snow and ice, says Prodrive instructor Alex Weston, are to plan your journey before setting out and to stay alert at the wheel.
He says: "Look for out for shiny roads, brake lights in the distance not just on the car in front of you, reduce speed when you see the road sloping downhill and don’t drive too fast.
"Drive as smoothly as possible, with no sharp braking, no hitting the throttle or any sudden steering movements.
"Look at where you want to be going. If you look at something, you tend to steer towards it staring at a ditch or wall may end in you hitting it.
"If you lose grip at the front wheels, gently reduce the power to give the wheels a chance to steer.
"In a rear-wheel drive car let the power off gently if the rear tyres lose their grip. If the front tyres go as well, straighten the steering."
If harsh winters are here to stay, as many predict, it will be well worth following the experts’ advice.
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