Of all the seasons, winter requires the most care and preparation if you’re to stay safe and avoid a breakdown.
Breakdowns are more common at this time of year – we have extra patrols on call as the number of breakdowns nearly doubles during particularly cold spells – and road conditions can be really challenging, particularly when snow and ice strike.
Here’s our general advice for safe and troublefree driving through the cold, dark months ahead.
Lights, heaters and wipers put high demands on the car battery. If your driving is mainly dark rush-hour trips, the battery will give out eventually.
Batteries rarely last longer than five years. Replacing one near the end of its life can save a lot of time and inconvenience at the side of the road.
Avoid running electrical systems any longer than necessary – turn the heater fan down and switch the heated rear window off once windows are clear.
If the car stands idle most of the weekend a regular overnight trickle charge is a good idea to give the battery a chance to revive.
Turn off non-essential electrical loads like lights, rear screen heater and wipers before trying to start the engine.
Use the starter in short five-second bursts if the engine doesn’t start quickly, leaving thirty seconds between attempts to allow the battery to recover.
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. 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.
Antifreeze costs only a few pounds, but a frozen and cracked engine block will cost hundreds of pounds 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° centigrade, and without it, severe engine damage costing hundreds of pounds can occur.
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.
Make sure that all bulbs are working and that lenses are clean. When roads are really mucky you might need to clean lights after every journey. Keep the number plates clean too, as you can be fined if they are dirty and illegible.
If you have to clear snow from the car it’s important to clear it from the lights – front and back – as well as from the glass and roof.
You must use headlights when visibility is seriously reduced. You may also use front or rear fog lights but these must be switched off when visibility improves as they can dazzle other road users and obscure your brake lights.
We recommend at least 3mm of tread 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.
It’s rare to need snow chains unless you live in an isolated area hit with heavy snow, and where the roads are not cleared. They must be removed to drive on a metalled road without a reasonable covering of snow.
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.
Get up at least 10 minutes early to give you time to prepare the car.
Don’t drive off like a tank-commander, 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.
Gentle manoeuvres are the key to safe driving – stopping distances are 10 times longer in ice and snow.
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.
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