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Essential winter driving tips

October 23, 2023 by

Winter doesn’t do your car any favours. Longer nights, wind, rain, ice, snow (and salt spread over roads to combat them) can all conspire to make driving tricky at best – and positively dangerous at worst.

You don’t have to live in a part of the country that often experiences extreme weather, either, to be cautious as the weather turns, the temperature drops and the nights draw in.

The key thing is to be prepared for any and all eventualities, making sure that your car is ready for whatever the winter throws at you. To help you tackle the toughest season for your car, we’ve pulled together all the best tips for winter driving, ready for when that next storm arrives.

Do you have to drive?

Before we assess all the potential risks you might face when driving in winter, it’s worth asking the question, do you really need to go out in the car? If the weather conditions are looking risky – and that could include heavy rain, high winds, ice or snow – you might want to consider not hitting the road, if it’s possible. With so much telecommunication technology at our disposal these days, you can attend a meeting without having to physically be there, so many trips that were previously important are now less so.

And if you do have to drive, check the available weather forecasts and the latest road information, so you can make informed decisions.

Preparing for winter driving

You’ve decided that your journey is necessary, so the next step is to ensure that your car is in good condition, before exposing it to extreme weather.

A handy little acronym to help you check everything is FLOWERY:

  • Fuel: is your tank full enough?
  • Lights: are they working and clear of dirt, grit or snow?
  • Oil: is it at the correct level?
  • Water: are coolant, antifreeze and washer fluid topped up?
  • Electrics: is your car’s battery in good condition?
  • Rubber: do your tyres have enough tread and are at the correct pressure?
  • You: are you and your passengers ready for what could be a long, slow journey?

Winter driving survival kit

You’ve checked your car thoroughly, so now it’s time to plan for unwelcome contingencies. A winter survival kit, which can be kept in the boot, will give you some additional options if the worst happens and your car gets stranded.

You can buy these kits complete or build your own, to include items such as a spade, tow rope, a charger for your mobile phone, a blanket, food and drink, sunglasses, spare clothes and a pair of stout boots. And some cat litter or gravel: you scatter it under the wheels, to help provide traction, if you get stuck in snow.

Do I need to fit winter tyres?

Whether or not to invest in a set of winter tyres has become a trickier question as we look into the future of our changing climate.

Winter tyres, as the name suggests, are tyres that are made for winter conditions. They are made from a specially formulated rubber compound, giving them better grip and improved braking at temperatures below 7°C, which is a common autumn/winter temperature in the UK.

But winter tyres are not just for snow. Tests show that winter tyres help a car stop 4.8m shorter on wet roads and 11m shorter on icy roads, when travelling at 20mph: at 50mph, a car with winter tyres in ice and snow takes 70m to stop, compared to 110m on summer tyres. That extra 40m could be the difference between your car being involved in a big shunt and escaping unscathed.

Tyre technology has recently led to the development of all-weather tyres, some of which are very good. However, there will always be a compromise involved, so if you live in a part of the country where low temperatures are common in winter, a set of winter tyres might be worth the extra investment. Yes, they are an expense (around the same cost as a set of summer tyres), but they will also prolong the life of your regular tyres.

Driving in windy weather

Strong winds can be dangerous when driving, with powerful gusts often pushing your vehicle off course or, even worse, bringing down trees and blowing detritus on the road. When high winds or storms are forecast for your area, the least risky option is to not go out in your car.

If, on the other hand, you do have to go out, always check the news and weather, in case of any road closures. When driving, keep your speed low, as strong winds can even get under the car and affect the braking and handling. Take care when overtaking anything, especially high-sided trucks and vans: the wind can blow vehicles into your path, so allow more space to account for this.

Hold the steering wheel firmly, while not gripping it. A gust of strong wind can sometimes catch you unawares, especially when driving over bridges in high winds, so you want to make sure you have as much control over the car as possible.

Driving in mist and fog

Foggy weather conditions can be among the most dangerous to drive in, because it reduces visibility. To mitigate this, slow down, to give yourself as much time as possible to react to any hazards ahead. You should also drive with dipped headlights and fog lights when visibility is below 100 metres, even if it’s daytime.

Driving in low sun

The low sun in winter can be blinding, so it’s important to ensure your windscreen is clean inside and out, you have a pair of sunglasses to hand in the car for when you’re driving into the sun and you use dipped headlights, so other drivers can see you.

This is also why you’ll also need to keep your windscreen washer fluid topped up, so you can keep your screen clean.

Driving in snow and ice

You should only go out in your car if it’s absolutely necessary when there’s ice and snow on the road. If you do decide to drive though, the best advice is to take it slow.

Your tyres are unlikely to have much grip, so changing direction is difficult and braking when driving on snow and ice can take 10 times longer than on a dry road. Don’t brake suddenly – your wheels will just lock up and you’ll have no control – and even a 4×4 won’t necessarily have enough grip.

All lights, windows, numberplates and wheel arches must also be clear of snow – and if your car is covered with snow before setting off, make sure you clear all the snow from the roof, bonnet, etc: if it falls off while you’re driving, it could create a hazard for another car.

After the snow has melted, even if the road looks clearer, there could still be patches of ice. And if you become stuck in snow, don’t over-rev the engine: you’ll just get more stuck. Instead, engage a higher gear (second is usually best) and gently rock the car forwards and backwards.

If you get stuck in a snow drift, don’t leave the vehicle: stay in place and call your breakdown service or, if you’re in a dangerous position, the emergency services.

Need a car to tackle winter?

Check out our guides to the best cars for winter and the best 4x4s you can buy. If you’re not sure what to buy, visit our car chooser to find the perfect car for your lifestyle.

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