How do you drive Safely in Winter Conditions?
Plunging temperatures, icy roads and heavy snow mean the winter months are some of the worst for motor insurance claims – and a crucial time to look after your car.
The colder weather brings with it more difficult driving conditions and the increased risk of a breakdown. As a result, motorists can often find themselves unexpectedly stranded in their vehicles.
Your car needs an extra bit of TLC at this time of year as we put them through their paces on journeys through wind, rain, sleet and snow.
I put together a small guide to cover some of the winter driving conditions you can expect to come up against in Scotland.
How do I check the car for winter driving?
- Lights – see and be seen. Keep your indicators and headlamps clean and working and carry spare bulbs in the glove box
- Fuel – stay out the red! A serious traffic jam can easily finish off a near-empty tank. Not nice at any time of the year, but potentially deadly in the snow.
- Windscreen wipers – make sure they’re in working order, your windows are clean, and your washer bottle is filled with screen wash.
- Tyres – check the condition, pressure and depth of your tyres (including the spare). Check tyre tread depth regularly to reduce the risk of aquaplaning. The law requires car tyres to have a minimum tread depth of 1.6mm.
- Brakes – make sure they are working well.
- Fluids – are topped up to the correct level, including oil, anti-freeze and water
- Emergency kit – put one in your car just in case you get stranded. Include things such as a phone, medication, a torch, food, extra clothes and blankets
How do I prepare for bad weather conditions?
- Plan your journey before you set off and allow yourself extra time:
- Check weather reports. Don’t make unnecessary journeys if there are severe weather warnings in place
- Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to get there
- Drive carefully and take account of the weather conditions. Leave a greater distance between you and the car in front – remember, it may take up to 10 times longer to stop in some conditions
- Winter sun – the sun can be dangerous in winter too. Be careful of dazzling rays when you are driving
How do you drive during heavy rain?
- Use headlights when visibility is seriously reduced, generally when you cannot see for more than 100 metres (328 feet). You may also use front or rear fog lights, but you MUST switch them off when visibility improves.
- Give yourself the best chance of being able to see clearly in wet weather by renewing windscreen wipers if worn or damaged
- Double the distance you leave between your car and the car in front of you, as stopping distances are increased by wet roads.
- If the steering becomes unresponsive due to the rain, ease off the accelerator and slow down gradually.
How do you drive on flooded roads and standing water?
- Don’t try driving through fast-moving water, such as at a flooded bridge approach – your car could easily be swept away.
- Watch out for standing water, trying to avoid it if you can, and adjust your speed to the conditions.
- Driving fast through standing water is dangerous; tyres lose contact with the road and you lose steering control in what’s known as ‘aquaplaning’. If you do experience aquaplaning, hold the steering wheel lightly and lift off the throttle until the tyres regain grip.
- Driving fast through standing water is inconsiderate. Driving through water at speeds above a slow crawl can result in water being thrown onto pavements, soaking pedestrians or cyclists. You could face a hefty fine and between three and nine penalty points if the police believe you were driving without reasonable consideration for other road users.
- Driving fast through standing water can cause expensive damage. The air intake on many cars is low down at the front of the engine bay and it only takes a small quantity of water sucked into the engine to cause serious damage. All engines are affected but turbo-charged and diesel engines are most vulnerable.
- As you drive slowly through standing water, use a low gear so the engine revs are higher; water in the exhaust could otherwise damage the catalytic convertor.
If you break down in heavy rain don’t prop the bonnet open while you wait for the patrol to arrive. The engine will be more difficult to start again if the electrics are all rain-soaked.
How do you prepare for driving on icy roads?
- Firstly, think about whether your journey is really necessary.
- Tyre grip is hugely reduced on icy roads, and braking distances are much longer.
- Even if you avoid an accident, your car may get stuck – potentially leading to a long walk home. Traffic congestion is likely to be worse, too. If you don’t get stuck, the driver in front of you probably will…
- Before you leave home, make sure you pack a charged mobile phone (and a charger cable), a bottle of water, a few snacks and a warm blanket. If snowfall looks likely, a set of snow socks – high-grip fabric covers fitted over the car’s driven wheels – is worth having, too.
- If you’re driving to meet someone, let them know your route and when you expect to arrive. Make sure the car’s windows and mirrors are completely clear before you set off. And in cars with selectable drive modes, select the best option for cold conditions.
How do you drive on icy roads?
- Anticipation and smoothness are key for driving on icy roads.
- Look well ahead for potential hazards – including, of course, patches of ice – and keep your speed well down.
- Accelerate, brake, steer and change gear as smoothly as possible to reduce the risk of a skid.
- A higher gear may be more appropriate to aid grip on packed ice.
- This helps manage engine power delivery, making it easier to find traction. If it’s manual, you might need to slip the clutch a little to prevent the car from stalling.
- Many automatics will let you select second gear at a standstill to pull away in.
What is the braking distance on ice?
Braking distances can increase tenfold on ice compared with a dry road.
For this reason, you should leave up to 10 times the normal recommended gap between you and the car in front.
Remember that tyres grip less efficiently in cold conditions.
So even if the temperature is above zero and there’s no ice on the road, you should take extra care.
Winter tyres offer more grip and can significantly increase performance in icy conditions.
What is black ice?
Black ice is a thin layer of ice on the road surface.
Because it is smooth and transparent, it appears the same colour as the road below.
Black ice can be almost invisible to drivers, which makes it particularly dangerous.
As a guide, if the temperature is low and the road surface looks ‘wet’, be careful and drive with caution as it could be black ice.
How do you identify and drive on black ice?
Sometimes black ice appears as a glossy sheen on the road.
You may see it glinting in the sunlight, or spot cars ahead swerving for no obvious reason.
However, it’s likely you won’t see black ice at all, so be particularly cautious on shaded stretches of road, bridges, flyovers and tunnels – anywhere the surface temperature may be lower, in fact.
Quiet roads are also more likely to be affected.
If you hit a patch of black ice, don’t panic.
Keep the steering wheel straight and maintain your speed – don’t hit the brakes.
Use the gears to slow down if necessary but avoid any sudden movements that could destabilise the car.
How do you correct a skid on ice?
If you do encounter a skid, steer gently into it.
For example, if the rear of the car is sliding to the right, steer to the right.
As above, do not take your hands off the steering wheel or brake hard.
How do you drive in hail?
Hailstorms are extremely dangerous to drive in. Not only can they cause extensive damage to your car but can also be harmful to anyone who decides to venture out of their vehicle.
Hail can also impair visibility and even break your car’s windows in
extreme conditions. If hail is severe, stop driving and pull over to a safe – preferably sheltered – place.
If you have to travel, plan your route to avoid known affected areas.
We also recommend informing relatives and friends of your intended route in case of an emergency.
- Stay inside the vehicle. Hail falls at fast speeds and can cause injury
- If hail is severe, stop driving and pull over to a safe place so the hail doesn’t break the windshield or any windows. Stop under an overpass if you can, or pull out of traffic lanes and on to a hard shoulder
- Keep your car angled so that the hail is hitting the front of your car. Windshields are reinforced to withstand forward driving and pelting objects. Side windows and rear glass are not and are much more susceptible to breakage
- Avoid ditches due to possible high-rising water
Why do we put salt on the icy roads?
Ice forms when the temperature of the water reaches 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius), and that includes ice on roadways. Road salt works by lowering the freezing point of water via a process called freezing point depression. The freezing point of the water is lowered once the salt is added, so the salt makes it more difficult for water to freeze. A 10-per cent salt solution freezes at 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-6 Celsius), and a 20-per cent solution freezes at 2 degrees Fahrenheit (-16 Celsius).
The key is, there must be at least a tiny bit of water on the road for freezing point depression to work. That’s why you often see trucks pre-treat roads with a brine solution (a mixture of salt and water) when ice and snow is forecast. If the roads are dry and the DOT simply puts down road salt, it likely won’t make much of a difference. But pre-treating with a brine solution can help ice from ever forming and will help reduce the amount of road salt trucks will need to spread to de-ice later.
Salt on roads, Pros and Cons
Rock salt is one of the most widely used road de-icers, but it’s not without critics. For one, rock salt does have its limits. If the temperature of the roadway is lower than about 15 degrees F (- 9 C), the salt won’t have any effect on the ice. The solid salt simply can’t get into the structure of the frozen water to start the dissolving process. In these cases, the DOT typically spreads sand on top of the ice to provide traction.
Rock salt also has major environmental issues, including the sodium and chlorine that leaches into the ground and water. And as we mentioned earlier, because rock salt isn’t purified and contains contaminants — including lead, iron, aluminium and phosphorus — when it’s spread, these are spread as well. However, rock salt remains the most widely used and affordable de-icers available. And while there are other chemical de-icers, too, none are 100 per cent risk-free.
If you must drive in poor conditions remember these tips
The best tip for driving in severe winter weather conditions is to avoid it. If you do not have to travel to work or school, try your best to stay off of the roads. There is no reason to put yourself in danger if driving in snow and ice is not necessary.
If you must drive in winter weather, be sure to allow extra time to drive from one place to another. Make sure that you are not in a rush to get anywhere. You will be forced to drive at slower than normal speeds and are more likely to be stalled by accidents when driving in winter weather conditions.
Slow down. Speeding is never smart, but speeding on snowy or icy roads can be deadly. Be prepared to drive significantly slower than you normally would on dry roadways. Reducing your speed will allow you to have more time to react if you encounter a problem.
Keep a distance of at least three car lengths between your vehicle and the vehicle in front of you.
Drive with your lights on, even during the day. Winter weather conditions reduce visibility. Even if it is not snowing, sleeting, or icing at the moment, your headlights will serve as an extra safety precaution.
Use a lower gear to provide more traction. Your vehicle will be less likely to accelerate quickly if it begins to slide on an icy road if it is being driven in a lower gear. Never use cruise control in winter weather conditions.
Never overestimate your vehicle’s ability to handle winter weather conditions. If you are sceptical, find another means of transportation.
People are often unsure of how to recover control of their vehicle if the wheels lock up because of icy or snowy road conditions. If your rear wheels lock up, take your foot off of the accelerator, turn your steering wheel in the direction you want your front wheels to go, apply steady pressure to anti-lock brakes or gently pump standard brakes. If your front wheels lock up, allow the steering wheel to turn freely, remove your foot from the accelerator, shift into neutral, then slowly begin to steer the vehicle as it slows down from turning. The best thing to keep in mind if you lose control of your vehicle on an icy road is the importance of not making any sudden manoeuvres. Allow your vehicle to slow down before attempting to regain control.
Even if there is no snow or icy to deal with, make sure that you completely defrost your front and back windshields before driving in the winter. Frost significantly reduces your visibility. Wait until it is completely melted before driving.
Again, if it is not necessary that you drive in winter weather conditions, do not get behind the wheel.
It wouldn’t be Christmas without the drink driving message.
With Christmas just around the corner, the next few days may pass in a blur of office parties, Christmas meals with friends and drinking a good glass (or two) of hot mulled wine under the Christmas tree. If you drive, you’ll also have got used to being bombarded with anti-drink driving campaigns over the years. Every Christmas a series of adverts is aired in which you’re told that if you get caught drink driving your world will fall apart. Don’t get caught and the consequences could be much worse; there are 240 deaths each year due to drink driving.
Despite this high-profile campaigning, each year around 100,000 drivers lose their licence because they’ve been caught driving over the limit. The result is an instant driving ban for at least 12 months – but that’s just the start of it. So this Christmas – and indeed all year round – don’t take any chances if you’re driving, because it’s just not worth it.
Alcohol is measured in units, and the below could surprise you. From a health angle, the NHS recommends that men should not regularly drink more than 3-4 units of alcohol a day, and for women no more than 2-3 units a day, however even just one drink can affect your driving ability.
25ml (single shot) of 40% spirit (eg. Vodka, whisky) = 1 unit
Pint of 4% beer = 2 units
250ml glass of 15% wine = 4 units
Pint of 5.5% cider = 3 units
250ml RTD (eg. WKD) = 2 units
Bottle of 12% wine = 9 units
The legal blood alcohol concentration limit for driving in the UK is 80mg of alcohol for every 100ml of blood, however there’s no proven way to judge if you’re over the limit by taking note of how much you’ve drunk, as many factors can contribute to how alcohol affects each individual – the only way you can be sure you’re safe is to consume zero alcohol.
Even if you’re legally allowed to drive after drinking alcohol, you may still be at risk of harming both yourself and other road users. Drivers with as little as 20-50mg of alcohol in their blood are at least three times more likely to die in a crash than those with no alcohol in their blood
Think just the one drink can’t harm? Even if you feel sober, just one drink can make you less safe behind the wheel. The effects of alcohol on the body include:
- Reduced reaction times
- Reduced vision
- Reduced skills in judging speed and distance
- An increased false sense of confidence leading to risk-taking
- Increased feeling of drowsiness
The Morning After the Night Before
Even if you’ve had a good sleep in between drinking the night before and driving to work the next morning, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the alcohol will have left your system and you’ll be safe to drive.
A rough guide for judging how long it takes for alcohol to leave your system was created by NHS Choices and is:
- One hour for the alcohol to be absorbed
- One hour more for each unit consumed
Feeling ‘sober’ isn’t a reliable guide to knowing whether you can drive or not, and drinking coffee, eating a meal or bracing a cold shower won’t make the alcohol leave your body any faster!
How do you get through the Christmas Season?
With the police watching the roads carefully, how can you make sure you’re not caught out this Christmas? The obvious way is to stay off the booze altogether or to drink a minimal amount before getting behind the wheel. Use a taxi, elect a designated driver within your group or ask someone to drive you – fail to do one of these and you’ll feel the impact potentially for years.