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Holding Icon How to Drive in Wintery Conditions

How to Drive in Wintery Conditions

SAS survival expert, John 'Lofty' Wiseman

Driving in winter can be challenging, with studies showing that drivers are six times more likely to have an accident. The numbers rise further when snow and ice pose an extra hazard. So, if weather conditions are badly affecting roads and traffic levels ask yourself if your journey is essential.

Meetings can be rescheduled, technology can enable remote working and walking or public transport is an alternative that should be considered in severe conditions. Don't contribute to the volume of traffic or put yourself and others at risk unless you have to.

If you do have to drive, having taken the precautions outlined in the Planning & Preparation section, there are several things you can do to ensure a journey by car is as safe as possible.

  • Winter tyres - consider fitting winter tyres that do not harden at low temperatures and provide greater grip on the road. A vehicle fitted with winter tyres will stop on a snowcovered road (from 30mph) in 35 metres - normal tyres require 43 metres (equivalent to another two car lengths).
  • Weather conditions - listen to the weather forecast and traffic updates throughout your journey so you are aware if conditions deteriorate and can alter your intended route or turn back. In freezing conditions beware of rain. This can quickly become black ice, which lies invisibly on the road.
  • Outside temperature - if your car has an on-board thermometer be aware of any temperature drops that increase the risk of ice. If you don't have one, expect ice and drive with caution.
  • Direction of travel - it will be colder on the west side of hills in the morning and more prone to freezing. A car compass can be useful for helping to main orientation and identifying any potential danger spots along your route.
  • Braking distance - ice and snow can increase your stopping distance by up to ten times, so maintain a sensible distance from the vehicle in front - particularly when approaching traffic lights, crossroads and junctions where compacted snow or ice may have formed.
  • Slippery slope - on downhill slopes, reduce your speed before you start the descent and don't let it build up. Stay in a low gear and utilise engine braking to assist you.
  • Wind chill - expect sudden wintery gusts in open areas, motorways and when driving over bridges.
  • Watch your speed - accelerate slowly away from junctions and on snowy roads to prevent the formation of ice under the tyres. Try and maintain a constant speed - not so fast that you risk losing control, but not so slow that you risk losing momentum should you need it (e.g. when approaching a hill).
  • Be smooth - brake, steer and accelerate as smoothly as possible. Stay in a higher gear to minimise the effect of sudden acceleration and always try to keep the car in a straight line, especially when braking.
  • Headlights - in falling snow use dipped headlights or foglights to make yourself visible to others (including pedestrians). As conditions improve make sure your foglights are only on if necessary as they can dazzle other drivers. If making any stops en route always check front and rear lights are working and clean them before setting off again.
  • Stay in the clear - in snow keep within the tyre tracks of the car in front if you can and on motorways use the clearest lane possible.
  • Parking safely - try to park on a level surface if you can, otherwise, park facing downhill so that you can drive away more safely should snow have fallen whilst you are away.
  • Handbrake - If parking on a level surface and if it's safe to do so (without rolling!), consider leaving the car in gear and the handbrake off as salt and ice can cause it to stick or freeze on.
  • Breakdown - if you experience a breakdown use a warning triangle and your hazard warning lights to make your vehicle visible to other road users. Don't prop the bonnet open while you wait for recovery - wet electrics will make restarting the car more difficult.

Survival Tip

Driving on frozen lakes 400 miles into the Arctic Circle gave new meaning to wintery conditions. In the UK be particularly aware of black ice - which isn't actually black but transparent, hence its notoriety as a driver hazard. (Lofty)

Winter Survival Guide

Download the complete guide

Winter Survival Guide cover


Amid falling temperatures and rising levels of concern among drivers, Halfords Autocentres has worked with renowned survival expert, former SAS Sergeant Major and author of the best-selling SAS Survival Handbook John 'Lofty' Wiseman to create the ultimate Motoring Survival Guide.

Download the complete guide or read on for more winter survival advice.