How to drive on icy roads safely

January 13, 2023 by

Driving on ice can be perilous and requires a cautious approach; our guide has the tips you need

Even with multiple weather apps, and forecasts easily available thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, icy roads can still catch us by surprise, and while the advice often seems to be only to drive if necessary, few of us decide to make unnecessary journeys as a matter of course.

As such, it’s more than possible that you will at some point – either this year or next – find yourself having to drive on icy roads, and a little knowledge of how to approach this is invaluable.

Here are our top tips for driving safely on icy roads.

1. Slow down

This should almost go without saying, but taking things slowly – very slowly if the roads are particularly treacherous – is the most important step to take when driving on icy roads.

Low-grip conditions mean skidding is a very real possibility, and while this is most likely when accelerating, slowing or cornering, your car could lose traction even on the straight. The more slowly you drive, the more thinking and reacting time you’ll have to correct a skid.

And, should the worst happen and you find yourself in a skid you can’t control, the more slowly you are driving, the less your impact speed will be if you hit anything.

Prepare your car

We’ve put together some general winter driving tips here, including a full checklist for preparing your car but, at the very least, be sure to check that your tyres are at the correct pressure, have plenty of tread depth, and are in generally good condition. They’re the only thing keeping your car in contact with the road, and in icy conditions have to work even harder than normal.

You must (legally as well as logically) also ensure all your windows and the front and rear windscreen are fully de-iced and de-misted before setting off. Same goes for all three mirrors.

It is also a good idea to get a sense of how much grip there is on the road before you set out on your journey. If you can find somewhere safe to do so (such as a car park), apply the brakes to see if, or at what point, the car skids.

Make your inputs gentle

Sudden steering, braking and acceleration inputs are generally not a good idea, and become even less so when there’s ice on the road, as the more severe you are with your car’s controls, the greater your chances are of it losing grip.

So go easy on the accelerator, take corners slowly and feed the steering wheel gradually.

Leave plenty of space

Stopping distances on icy roads can be 10 times longer than in good conditions, so make sure you leave extremely generous distances between your car and the vehicle in front. If you were doing 70mph on an icy road (this would not be a good idea), it could take you 770 metres to come to a stop.

Make sure you leave yourself lots of time and space to come to a stop when approaching junctions, and remember you will not be able to stop suddenly for pedestrians and other vulnerable road users: drive at a speed that is appropriate for this fact.

The gearbox is your friend

It will obviously sometimes be necessary to use the brakes when driving on ice, but using your gearbox to slow down will help the car maintain traction.

When slowing, select progressively lower gears rather than relying on the brakes. Most modern automatic gearboxes will have a manual mode, while with older ones the same effect can be achieved by using ‘lockout’ modes, which stop the gearbox from changing up above a certain gear.

Being in the right gear is also important when speeding up and cruising: choose as high a gear as possible, as early as possible.

Feel what the car is doing

This comes down to both experience and a sense of intuition, but by using your senses, it is possible to get an idea of what the car is doing and how much grip it has.

Does the steering wheel feel particularly loose when taking a corner? You’re probably losing grip under the front tyres. Is the rear of the car wiggling about slightly? You’re likely to be losing grip at the rear. Do you feel, through the driver’s seat, that the car has suddenly become much smoother and quieter on the road than usual? You may be either driving on ice, or have lost traction on all four wheels.

What should I do if my car starts to slide on ice?

Don’t hit the brakes in a panic; instead, take your foot off the accelerator – if you’re travelling in a straight line, slowing down should help the tyres regain grip with the road.

If your car is sliding sideways, turn the steering wheel into the skid (while also not pressing the accelerator or brake pedals). When the car regains grip after you have turned into the skid, be prepared for it to snap back the other way; this can happen more than once, and you should be ready to make corrective steering inputs in each instance.

How do I avoid black ice?

Black ice is a thin layer of frozen moisture on the road that is transparent, meaning the road surface is still visible, and the black ice is therefore either difficult or impossible to spot.

Black ice can sometimes be identified by what looks like a slightly shiny road surface that almost appears wet; it can reflect light. Pay particular attention when travelling under bridges, tunnels, or shaded sections of road, as it is more likely to form here, while roads that take less traffic can also be more susceptible to it.

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