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How To Stay Safe While Driving in Winter

Posted by Marc Michelsen on

As well as often being unpleasant, driving in winter weather also means we need to adjust some of our habits and behavior on the roads. Snow, ice and heavy rain all affect surfaces, and our cars react differently than in the dry.

In extreme conditions you might prefer to stay at home or defer your journey, particularly if you’re an inexperienced or nervous driver. That might not always be an option, though, so here’s our advice to help you stay safe on the roads this winter.

Before you travel

The more prepared you are, the less stressful your journey is likely to be. Of course, there’s a difference between nipping out to the local supermarket for groceries and traveling several hours to visit family, but you still need to take care.

  • Never drive when you’re over-tired. You’ll find it harder to concentrate and you’re more likely to make mistakes, which could have serious consequences in severe weather.
  • Check weather conditions before you set off, so you know what to expect at each stage of your journey.
  • Plan your route in advance and make sure there are service stations or other places along the way where you can take regular comfort breaks.
  • If you’re traveling some distance, let people know what time you intend to set off, the route you’re taking, and approximately when you expect to arrive. Remember to allow extra time for any delays.
  • Wear comfortable clothing. Layers that you can add or remove are best in case you get too hot or cold while driving.
  • Warming up your vehicle before you set off will reduce condensation forming inside the windows. Make sure to clear away all ice and snow, particularly from your windscreen and rear window, and don’t forget your side mirrors.

Winter driving tips

Driving in fog or on wet, snowy or icy roads is very different to when the weather is warm and dry. You’ll need to take extra care and change your driving style to stay safe.

  • Slow down. Never exceed speed limits and go as slowly as you need to feel safe. Don’t be harassed into speeding up; you can always pull over to let other vehicles past.
  • Be alert. Black ice is almost invisible but traveling at a sensible speed gives you a better chance of spotting it.
  • Remember braking distances and times increase in bad weather – allow double than you would in dry conditions. Never leave it to the last minute to slow down for a junction or traffic controls, and don’t jump on the brakes – if the roads are wet or icy, you’ll skid.
  • Leave the cruise control alone. You need to be in total control of your vehicle when driving in winter weather conditions.
  • Use your judgement when it comes to headlights. In thick fog, you’ll likely find you can see better with low beam only. Always leave plenty of room between you and the vehicle in front and remember you don’t need your fog lights in traffic or light mist – you’ll just dazzle the driver behind you.
  • Avoid jerky steering or sudden, last-minute lane-changes. Always signal well in advance of any maneuver and keep your driving smooth and steady. Be patient if traffic ahead of you is moving more slowly, and only pass if you’re sure it’s safe to do so.
  • Stay a safe distance behind snowplows and salt/gritting vehicles. Never overtake a snowplow – as well as putting yourself and any passengers at risk as you navigate the ridge of snow it leaves, you’ll find it far easier to drive in its path.
  • Be aware in cold weather that bridges might be icy even if the main road surface is not. This is because surfaces with open air beneath them tend to cool more quickly than those on solid ground, which have some degree of insulation from the earth.

What should you do if you skid?

Going into a skid is frightening. Knowing what to do will often help you avoid an accident, or at least mitigate any impact.

  • Don’t panic. It’s easier said than done in the heat of the moment, but it means you are more likely to remember how to react.
  • Tempting though it is, don’t hit the brakes. Instead, look at where you want your vehicle to go and steer in that direction.
  • Don’t accelerate, either. Either put your car in neutral and stop the power travelling to the wheels or, if you must leave it in gear, don’t touch the pedal. You might need to accelerate gently at the end of the skid or to avoid a collision.

What’s the best way to brake on slippery surfaces?

The last thing you should do is jump hard on the brakes – it makes a skid or an accident more likely, not less. Threshold braking and declutching is the best way to slow down if the road surface is slippery.

  • Most modern cars have anti-lock brakes. Use the ‘heel and toe’ method – with your heel resting on the floor of your vehicle, use your toes to press the brake pedal firmly. Just before the wheels lock up, ease the pressure on the pedal. Repeat as necessary, but don’t remove your foot from the brake until you come to a complete stop.
  • If you don’t have anti-lock brakes, the method is the same but remove your foot from the pedal between cycles.

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