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How to Drive Safely during the Winter

by Neil Allen /

Opening your house door one morning in winter, you step out into an unexpected blizzard. The temperature has dropped rapidly through the night and it’s snow snowing heavily, and underneath it ice has taken grip too.

Struggling to your car, you realise that you’ve left your one and only ice scraper somewhere in the house. You push aside the snow on your windscreen in the hope it won’t be frozen underneath – but it is. Your fingers now numb, you pull open the car door with difficultly and jump inside, go to fire the engine and… nothing happens, just that dreaded clicking noise you get when your battery is completely flat.

A neighbour has jump leads and you manage to start the engine, and after warming it enough to melt some of the ice from the screen, you’re off on your way, triumphant that you’re finally going! That is, until you use your washer jets to clear your windscreen, which freezes over immediately thanks to a lack of screen wash.

You pull over to try to clear the ice, and having done that you go to set off, but there’s a distinct lack of traction. With zero grip, you ask a passing 4×4 to help you out. Sorry mate, no tow-rope. In desperation you phone the breakdown service, but there’s a 3-hour wait as they’re overloaded with work.

icy street

Sitting back heavily, you’re convinced nothing else can go wrong. Until you glance at your fuel gauge and realise you’re running in the red. You’ve left your big winter jacket at home, and your work shoes aren’t exactly cut out for snow, so walking the two miles to the nearest garage is out of the question. And now the snow is settling thick and fast. A text pops onto your phone from the breakdown company: ‘Due to the weather conditions and heavy workload, we will be delayed’. Great.

This may seem like a worst-case scenario, but it’s guaranteed this will happen regularly across the country as the bad weather arrives and drivers are caught totally underprepared. In the worst instances, it could be tragic.

On the 20th December 2010, the AA reports in that single day they handled more than 28,000 breakdowns and call-outs, whilst in February 2012 the RAC attended to over 50,000 battery-related cases.

So, just how can you prepare yourself and your car for the winter weather ahead? Using information from the breakdown services and the Police, we’ve compiled a handy guide to what you’ll need to do.

Note: it’s worth printing this list out to help.

Preparing your car For The Winter Months

Make sure your car will start! If the temperature has dropped rapidly overnight, this will effect the charge level in your battery. If it’s an old one, you might want to replace it. An extremely useful piece of equipment is a jump starter which means you won’t have to rely on borrowing your neighbours jump leads. On that note, jump cables are cheap to buy and well worth keeping in your boot anyway.

icy car

Fill your screenwash up. Poor visibility leads to accidents, and it’s vital to keep your screen clear as you drive. A common mistake is grab the nearest bottle of screenwash from the aisle of your fuel station and pour it in. However, always check the label. Some are pre-diluted and are good for only a few degrees below zero celsius. Go for the concentrated screenwash, and dilute it yourself to however cold it is (remember to factor wind-chill into the equation, not just the outside temperature). The good ones will protect from – 35˚ and below.

Can you see out your windscreen well? It’s all well having decent screenwash, but if your wiper blades are cut or old, this will lead to smearing and bad visibility. New ones are recommended, and it’s also a good habit to clean the inside of the glass to cut down glare.

Get your antifreeze mixture right. A common mistake is for drivers to top up their radiator with water throughout summer. However, when it gets to winter, you could be looking at a frozen system if your mixture isn’t correct. If you’re not sure what mix to use, visit your garage where they should charge only a small amount to do it for you.

Check your tyres. The more grip left, the better. At least 3mm of tread is recommended for winter driving. If your tyres are looking worn and your area is particularly susceptible to snow and ice, perhaps consider buying all-season tyres for more traction.

Can you actually get into your car? A frequent issue in sub-zero conditions is that moisture on your door seals becomes frozen and the doors become extremely difficult to open. Door locks can also freeze, locking you out. For door seals, apply either a smearing of Vaseline, or common house polish (such as Mr Sheen). For the locks, use something like WD40 to stop them becoming frozen.

Do you have enough fuel? If you become stuck in traffic or simply can’t get traction, you may be stuck for hours. You’ll need to keep warm by running the engine and that obviously uses fuel. Another issue is that fuel trucks sometimes cannot get through for several days, so always make sure you keep plenty of fuel in your tank throughout winter, and also carry a can of it in the boot, using the correct type of container.

Preparing for winter driving

Below is a list of gear you should carry in your car. It’s may seem extensive and perhaps over the top by some, but it’s what common sense should dictate, and it’s also what emergency services such as the Police and Fire Service recommend taking with you.

car stuck in snow

To keep gear to hand, it’s best to put a box in the boot and store some of the larger items in there.

It’s not gear but: Check the weather report – if it’s going to be bad that day, think seriously about whether you really need to travel or not.

Ice scraper and de-icer. Always check what temperature the de-icer works to.

Snow shovel. Space-saving versions are available

Jump starter and cables

Warm and weatherproof jacket

Heavy blankets for yourself and any passengers

Thick gloves. Should you need to shovel snow, you’ll be glad of them!

Boots and thick socks

Sunglasses to cut down glare from the low sun

Mobile phone charger

Food and drink. Thermos flasks or 12-volt in-car travel kettles can be purchased to ensure warm drinks and hot food can be had

Satellite navigation system and/or road map.

Torch with extra batteries or charging cable. Wind-up torches are also a good option

Snow socks. Should you loose traction, these are an excellent way of getting going again. Used by the breakdown services to good effect.

Snow chains. For more extreme conditions, chains are a better option over snow socks.

Tow rope. Buy a long and decently heavy-duty version. 3 tonne rating and upwards is recommended

Finally: Stay safe, always be sensible, and drive in accordance with the weather conditions.

Chris Davies is an award-winning motoring journalist writing for CarProductsTested.com

Photo credits: Ice covered car: Endlisnis; Snow covered street: Mark Hillary; Car Stuck in snow: Laurel F

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