Get set for winter driving

The council gritter, yesterday
"sudden cold and icy snaps have the tendency to catch drivers on the hop, year in, year out"
  • | by Kristian Dando

Yikes! There's a chill in the air, meaning winter’s back with an icy vengeance.

Contrary to some of the more outrageous media hype of ‘Siberian weather conditions’, Britain has a relatively mild climate. But sudden cold and icy snaps have the tendency to catch drivers on the hop, year in, year out.

It doesn’t have to be this way – with a bit of preparation, you can navigate your daily commute like a seasoned ice road trucker. Read on for our indispensable guide to safe winter motoring...

Check your breakdown cover is in order

  • Make sure that your breakdown cover policy is in order and up-to-date - because nothing would put a massive dampner on Christmas afternoon than breaking down on your way back from the in-laws...
  • If you've got a breakdown policy already, but you aren't too confident in your car's reliability, consider adding home-start to your policy. This will mean that your breakdown cover provider will help you come and get you moving if your car is stuck on the driveway.
  • While breakdown cover can be really useful, it's a two-way agreement. Your car has got to be kept roadworthy and in good repair for your policy to be valid, so make sure stuff like the tyre tread, break fluid, oil and so forth are all in good condition or properly topped up.

Make sure you can see

  • We don’t need to tell you that being able to see properly out of your car is key to safe driving. But thanks to the salt on the road and glare from the low winter sun, visibility in the cold months can be compromised, putting you and other motorists at risk.
  • Make sure that your washer fluid is constantly topped up with water and non-freezing washer fluid - it’s surprising how much you get through when constantly blasting off salt.
  • Keep a large empty pop bottle or similar in the car, so you can fill up quickly and easily. Most good garage forecourts have water that you can help yourself to at no extra cost. If, like at many service stations, the garage has the audacity to charge you for water, just head to the toilets and fill up from the tap.
  • Make sure the inside of your car windows are clean, too. A lint-free cloth should do the trick. If your windows are particularly grimy, give them a quick once over with some window-cleaning wipes.
  • Keep your sunglasses in the car so you won’t be dazzled by the sun, too.

Check your tyres

  • If you live somewhere that’s particularly isolated and snow-prone, then it might be worth considering a set of winter tyres. But normal, all-weather treads will probably suffice for the rest of us city dwellers and suburbanites. Before you switch to a set of winter tyres, give your car insurance provider a call to check if they consider them a modification or not. If they do consider them to be a modification, then you may risk invalidating your policy if you don't declare them!
  • Making sure that your current tyres are in good nick is a good place to start - be certain that you’ve got the 1.6mm minimum legal tread, and that they are inflated to the levels advised in your car’s handbook.
  • If you’re having trouble getting moving in snow, consider letting a little bit of air out of them to get extra purchase on the road.

Check your electrics

  • Flat batteries are a big problem in winter. Make sure that yours is well charged. You may notice your car slow cranking when you try and start it in the morning. This is usually a sign that your battery could do with charging, or replacing completely.
  • Make sure that your car's electrical workings are all in working order. The heaters our car are fantastic for keeping you toasty warm, but they’re essential to de-mist the windows, too.
  • Likewise, if any of your lights have burnt out, now is the ideal time to replace them. You’ll get stopped and fined by the police if you’re caught with lights that don't work, and could end up with a fine. 

Pack a kit

  • It’s worth carrying about an emergency kit with you, with essentials in case you were to get stranded overnight.
  • Carry a warm coat, gloves and a hat, plus extras like clean pants and socks, as well as a blanket.
  • It’s worth keeping some energy-rich food like crisps or chocolate in the car, as long as you can resist scoffing them all when you don't need them.
  • Make sure you’ve got antifreeze on you, as well as an ice scraper. If you've got space for it, a shovel is handy, too.

Adapt your driving style

  • It never fails to amaze us how pushy drivers continue to drive up other car’s backsides (a dangerous and foolhardy activity even in fine weather) when the weather takes a turn for the worse. Give the car in front more room than you’d normally allow, and don’t break sharply.
  • Where possible, ease off the throttle to slow yourself down.But if you have to brake, smooth, gentle pumping is the order of the day.
  • Turn gently into corners, and when attempting to get moving don’t rev the engine to within an inch of its life. This just makes the wheels spin quickly, meaning you won’t get much traction.
  • Try starting off from second gear (easier if you drive a diesel-powered vehicle), and if you drive a rear-wheel drive car, which are notoriously tricky in the snow, consider getting some help to get you moving....or not driving at all.

Plan your journey

  • Know what route you’re going to take before you leave. Check the weather forecast and traffic updates, and think about turning alerts on your stereo on - they can be a bit of a pain, particularly if you’re nicely settled into Radio 4’s afternoon play, but they’ll keep you up to date on what’s going on in your vicinity and blackspots to avoid.
  • If the weather looks like its turning hazardous, it’s probably not a good idea to take the short cut down the single track B-road past Farmer Jones’s place. The main roads might be busier, but it’s more likely they’ll have been gritted, and the constant presence of traffic means that snow is less likely to settle.

Do you really need to drive?

Think about whether you even need to drive at all if it’s looking particularly perilous outside. There’s no point taking the risk of getting stranded or worse.