Winter Driving Advice
Stay safe on the road all through the winter
Winter can bring with it some of the most dangerous driving conditions. With shorter, darker days, wet and cold weather, and lower visibility – more care is needed to stay safe on the road at this time of year.
If you want to feel confident driving safely in any road conditions and avoid breakdowns, follow this advice and you’ll be ready for whatever the winter months throw at you.
Before you set off
Getting ready to drive in cold or wet weather needs extra time in order to make sure you’re ready to drive safely. It’s better to arrive a little later but get there in one piece – and there’s more risks of danger or delays on your journey, so be prepared for anything.
- Set your alarm at least 10 minutes earlier to give you that extra time to get your car ready before you need to set off
- Make sure all your lights and windows are clear of snow and ice, using a scraper and de-icer when needed
- If you have a frozen lock, use a cigarette lighter to warm a key for it. Don’t breathe on the lock as the moisture will just condense and freeze
- Plan to take routes that use major roads wherever possible, as these are more likely to have been cleared and gritted
Battery and electrics
When it’s cold out, your car battery and electrics have to work that much harder. If you’re driving through dark rush hour times, your battery will eventually give out.
- As car batteries rarely last longer than five years, we recommend replacing yours near the end of its life, rather than risking it dying and leaving you stranded at the side of the road
- Before starting your engine, turn off any non-essential electrical items – such as lights, rear screen heater, and wipers
- If the engine doesn’t start quickly, use the starter in short five-second bursts – and leave 30 seconds between attempts to let the battery recover
- Avoid running any electrics longer than needed – turn the heater fan down and switch off the heated rear window once the windows are clear
During the winter, there’s a higher chance of your engine or your car’s internal components freezing. It’s important to be aware and take action if your car is frozen.
Hearing a continuous squealing noise as soon as you start the engine? It could be a sign the water pump is frozen. Stop the engine immediately and give it time to thaw out. This might take several days unless you can move the car to a heated garage.
Is your car overheating a few miles from home? Your car radiator may have frozen. In this case, you should stop straight away to avoid serious damage and let the radiator thaw.
We recommend keeping some antifreeze handy to help you unfreeze your car. Antifreeze only costs a few pounds, and can help save you hundreds of pounds in damage.
- Most modern cars use long-life antifreeze. It’s important to use the right type – so make sure you check your vehicle handbook or ask a dealer for advice
- In winter you need a mix of 50-50 antifreeze and water in your cooling system. This gives maximum protection to your engine in temperatures as low as -34°C
When weather conditions reduce your natural visibility in the car, it’s important you take precautions to allow you to see as clearly as possible. There are a lot of things you can do to help you see the road, other road users, and your surroundings so you can stay safe while driving in winter.
- Keep your windscreen and other windows clear. You can face hefty fines if your windows are obscured by dirt, snow, or stickers. You can use air conditioning to quickly demist and reduce condensation on cold windows
- Clear snow from the roof of your car, as well as from the windows, as snow can fall onto your windscreen – or affect other road users
- If you have greasy smears on your windscreen and can’t remove them with normal screenwash – try using a cream glass polish with a slight abrasive action. If that doesn’t work, try dishwasher powder dissolved in a little water. Use kitchen paper to clean a small area at a time, and try not to go back over a patch you’ve just done
- Your wipers are critical to visibility. To prevent your wipers from freezing, make sure your wipers are switched off and in the park position when you leave the car. Keep your windscreen washer fluid topped up to reduce the chances of freezing
- Make sure your headlight bulbs are working and the lenses are clean. When you have to clear snow from your car, be careful not to brush the snow onto your lights. Use your headlights when visibility is reduced. You can also use front or rear fog lights if needed, but switch these off when visibility improves as they can dazzle other road users and obscure your brake lights
Your tyres are your lifeline in cold or wet conditions – they’re what will keep you steady on the road. It’s worth considering changing to winter or all season tyres, as these are less likely to harden at lower temperatures and have better grip in icy or wet conditions. Be sure to also keep a close eye on how your tyres are faring during the winter months so you can make any adjustments needed.
- We recommend at least 3mm of tread for winter driving – and certainly no less than 2mm
- Don’t reduce tyre pressure for more grip, this doesn’t actually help and instead can reduce stability
- If you live in an isolated area and are hit with heavy snow, the roads are less likely to be cleared. In these cases, snow chains can be useful. When using snow chains, make sure you remove them to drive on metalled roads that don’t have a reasonable covering of snow
How to drive safely in snow and ice
Taking care of your car and getting it ready to face the snowy or icy conditions is only part of the battle. The real challenge is when you’re actually out on the roads driving. Stopping distances are 10 times longer in the snow and ice, so keep your distance from the vehicle in front of you. Take care when performing manoeuvres, as gentle manoeuvres are the key to safe driving.
- Wear comfortable, dry shoes for driving. Keep your snow-covered boots in the backseat or boot and save them for when you need to walk outside, as the snow can make your feet slip on the pedals
- When heading off, pull away in second gear and ease your foot of the clutch gently to avoid wheel-spin
- If your car starts skidding on the ice, don’t just slam on the breaks as this will make you slide more. Instead, carefully steer your car and apply your brakes gently. Release the brakes and de-clutch (by pushing the clutch down) if the car skids
- Driving uphill: Avoid having to stop part way up by waiting until it’s clear in front of other cars. Keep a constant speed and choose the most suitable gear well in advance to avoid having to change down a gear on the hill
- Driving downhill: Reduce your speed before you start going down the hill. Use a low gear and try to avoid using the brakes, and make sure you leave as much room as possible between you and the car in front
- If you get stuck in the snow while driving, straighten the steering and clear the snow from your wheels. Put a sack or old rug in front of the wheels to give the tyres some grip. Once on the move again, try not to stop until you reach firmer ground
- Have an automatic transmission? Select ‘2’, as this will limit the gear changes and mean you need to rely less on the brakes. Some automatic cars have a ‘Winter’ mode which locks out first gear to reduce the risk of wheel spin, so check your vehicle handbook
Winter car essentials
Breaking down, encountering traffic delays, or becoming stranded are all possibilities when snow hits. It’s important to keep some necessary supplies in your car – just in case – as these could help you get home safely.
Here are our tips for what you should keep in your car as a winter survival kit:
- Ice scraper and de-icer
- Torch and spare batteries
- A fully charged phone
- Portable battery charger
- Road atlas
- First aid kit
- Empty fuel can
- Jump start cables
- Traction mats
- Big coat
- Boots with good grip
- Spare warm clothes – including gloves, hat, scarf, socks, jumper, shoes
- High-visibility jacket
- Drinks – such as water or hot drinks in a flask
“I attended a skid pan course and again the principles that you taught me down that snowy wash common lane all those years ago put me in good stead and I also passed that course.”
– Helen Taylor-Phelps, Newbury, August 2014
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