Winter weather can make even the simplest journeys difficult and even unsafe. Snow, ice, gales, flooding, frost and fog – the winter months often present motorists with some of the most challenging driving conditions of the year. If you've no option but to take to the roads when the elements are against you, I have some essential driving tips to help keep you safe. But first, you might want to give your car or van a winter health check.
Snow, ice and frost: Make sure you have good all-round visibility before setting off. Make sure your windows are completely clean and clear but DO NOT pour boiling water over the glass to thaw the ice as this can cause it to crack. Instead, use de-icer and a proper ice scraper, NOT a CDs or credit cards they could scratch the glass. DO NOT leave your car or van switched on and unattended while the windscreen is defrosting as it'll increase the risk of it being stolen (and your claim will be rejected if this happens). You should also take the time to clear snow off the roof – it can slip down onto your windscreen or rear window or blow off into the path of other traffic.
It's important to drive cautiously and at the correct speed – not too fast because you risk losing control, but not so slow that you risk losing momentum when it’s needed. Always brake gently to avoid locking the wheels and losing control. If you drive a manual, start gently and avoid high revs. Stay in a higher gear to avoid skidding and maximise control – start off in second if it’s really slippery. This isn’t so easy in an automatic, but some come with L, 2 or +/- controls which allow drivers to change up into higher or lower gears if needed. If your car or van starts to slide sideways, take your foot off the pedals and steer into the skid. Only use the brake if you cannot steer out of trouble. Bends are particularly challenging in icy conditions. Slow down early so that by the time you turn the steering wheel you’ve already lost enough speed. On a downhill slope keep your speed low before you start the descent and don’t let it build up – it’s much easier to keep it low than to try and slow down once things get slippery.
Double or treble your normal stopping distance from the vehicle in front so you’re not relying on your brakes to be able to stop. Think ahead as you drive and slow down early, especially if it means you won’t have to stop altogether. It’s easier to keep moving rather than come to a complete standstill in order to keep momentum. Try to stick to bigger, busier roads. They are more likely to have been treated with salt and grit and the extra traffic is likely to have churned up the snow. Minor roads are less likely to be cleared or treated. If you get stuck in snow, don't spin the wheels or rev the engine – all this will do is dig your car or van further in. Instead, choose as high a gear as possible and slowly maneuver the vehicle forwards and backwards to gently creep out.
Fog: Keep your windscreen and windows as clean as possible. The dirtier your windows, the more likely they are to cloud up quickly. Don't forget your rear-view mirror and door mirrors either. Always use dipped headlights in misty conditions. Full beam will only obscure your visibility when it's foggy and dazzle oncoming drivers. Only use your fog lights if visibility is less than 100 metres, but don’t forget to turn them off when visibility improves. Top up your screenwash before setting off. Fog can leave a fine spray on your windscreen and you’ll need to keep it clean and clear. However, if you're driving in freezing fog, don’t use your windscreen washer unless you have non-freezing washer fluid – the screen will be covered in ice if not. Pedestrians and cyclists will be more difficult to see. Keep your speed down to give yourself enough time to spot them, especially in built-up areas. Don't stick rigidly to the speed limit – maintain a steady and consistent pace to make sure you can slow down or brake early enough to avoid hazards ahead, and cars behind you can do the same If a car behind you is following too closely, drive sensibly and consistently and try not to brake suddenly.
Heavy rain and flooding: Before setting off in stormy conditions, check your lights and windscreen wiper blades are clean and working properly. Also check tyre pressure and tread depth to ensure the best possible grip on wet surfaces. Plan your route in advance and try to avoid any roads that are prone to flooding – even if it means a longer journey. Switch on your dipped headlights so other motorists can see you easily. Reduce your speed when travelling to decrease your stopping distance. This will also help you pass through large puddles and potholes smoothly, without spraying other road users or risking aquaplaning. Beware when driving through puddles and flooded areas – they may be deeper than you think and cause serious damage to your car or van. If in doubt, turn back and find another way to your destination. If you think it’s safe, proceed slowly, keeping in a low gear (e.g. second) and your engine revs up so that you can maintain momentum. Once you exit the other side – and especially if the puddle was deep – pause for a moment (if it's safe) to let any excess water drain away. You should then gently test your brakes to be sure they're working correctly. If your engine cuts out after driving through deep water, don’t attempt to restart it, as catastrophic engine damage may occur. Instead, turn on the hazard lights, call for assistance and get professional advice.
High winds: Keep both hands on the wheel to maximise the chances of controlling your car or van and handling any sudden gusts. Reduce your speed so strong gusts won’t blow you as far off course and keep your distance from other vehicles, especially lorries and caravans. Expect the unexpected, especially when travelling on exposed stretches of road, bridges and passing high-sided vehicles. Leave extra room for cyclists and motorcyclists, who are particularly vulnerable to sudden gusts, and may veer across the road. Beware of fallen trees, branches and other debris such as dustbins that may have blown into the road. Avoid towing high-sided trailers like caravans or horseboxes if gales are forecast.
In an emergency: Don’t press on if you think there's a problem. If you’re on a motorway, pull over onto the hard shoulder and pull off any other road somewhere safe. Switch on your hazard warning lights to let other road users know you have a problem. If you’re on a motorway or side road, make sure you and your car or van are always visible to other road users. If you have a warning triangle, place it on the same side of the road at least 45 metres (147 feet) behind your broken-down vehicle. If you break down or have to pull over on a motorway or dual carriageway, you and your passengers should leave your vehicle and wait behind a barrier or up an embankment. Don't stand too close to your car or van – other vehicles have been known to rear-end stranded cars. If you have to call for assistance, you’ll need to tell the breakdown or emergency services your location, so try to keep track of where you are. If you feel threatened in any way, call 999 for the police.
If you’re driving in extreme conditions, always carry a winter driving kit. This should include: Ice scraper, De-icer, Blanket, Torch, Shovel, High visibility jacket, Waterproof clothing, Warning triangle, Something to eat, Fully charged mobile phone.