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Safety Tips for Driving in Snow or on Ice

The winter of 2009 and spring of 2010 has brought severe weather conditions reminiscent of the winters of the 1960's. For most drivers this was their first taste of driving in snow and severe icy conditions. With global climate change, we are likely to experience these severe weather conditions more often.

Snow on a road may be hard-packed and slippery as ice. It can also be rutted and full of hard tracks and gullies, or it can be smooth and soft. Wet snow can make for slushy roads. Heavy slush can build up in the wheel wells of your vehicle and can affect your ability to steer.  If heavy snow is falling or if snow or severe ice has occurred on road surfaces, it is safer to postpone your journey until it has cleared, but if you cannot postpone your journey or if you are caught in falling snow, you will find the following tips useful.

Prepare your car before you travel and if you are travelling a long distance, plan your route ahead of time. Check weather reports and let someone know of your destination and expected time of arrival.

Drivers Checklist

  • Check your oil, antifreeze and windscreen wash.
  • Remember! All that is keeping your car in a straight line, is the four small patches of rubber that have contact on the road, so check your tyres. The legal requirement is a tread depth of 1.6mm. RoadDriver recommends you have at least 2.5mm of tread for winter driving. Do not lower your tyre pressure for more grip, its an old wife's tale, it does not work and can make the car more difficult to steer. 
  • Clear all snow off the roof, windows, bonnet and lights. Note! It is not only dangerous to drive with snowy or frosted windows, it is an offence that carries a fine and 3 penalty points.
  • Demist inside windows if necessary. For fastest demisting, use the AC with the temperature set at 'hot'. This will also clear condensation from other windows.
  • Check wiper blades (front and back) and replace if necessary.
  • Check water jets have not frozen.
  • Check your car lights are working properly. (replace any faulty bulbs)
  • Check your battery condition. (if in doubt get it checked at a garage)
  • Make sure you have enough fuel for your journey. For extra safety and peace of mind, do not let your tank fall below half full.

It's a good idea to keep a winter survival kit in your vehicle. Having essential supplies can provide some comfort and safety for you and your passengers should you become stranded.

Recommended items include:

  1. Car safety kit. (See Tips and Advice No31)
  2. Carry a shovel in the boot and a bag of cat litter, or you can carry an old sack or cloth material which you can put under the wheels to aid grip if you get stuck in snow.
  3. Spare Windscreen wash.
  4. Spray de-icer, scraper and snow brush.
  5. Gloves, warm clothes, blanket or sleeping bag, snow boots (not for driving)
  6. Mobile phone and charger.
  7. Emergency breakdown details.
  8. Map.
  9. Tow rope, Jump leads.
  10. High visibility Jacket.
  11. For long Journeys. (Non-perishable energy foods - for example, chocolate or granola bars, juice, flask of tea or hot soup, bottled water)

Driving in Snow and Ice

Be advised that driving in snow or on ice needs a light touch. It's helpful to practice winter driving techniques in a snowy, open parking area to become familiar with how your car handles in the snow.

  • Stay in control; stay alert and slow down to a safe manageable speed to fit the conditions.
  • In lowlight conditions it is critical for drivers to see and be seen. When heavy snow is falling or blowing across the carriageway turn on your headlights.
  • Use only your Low Beam headlights as High Beams (blue dashboard beam) reflect the moisture off falling snow making it even more difficult to see.
  • Watch your speedometer; falling snow can have a mesmerizing effect creating a feeling of slow motion, when you may actually be speeding. Speed is a major factor in snow and ice-related crashes.
  • Use your wipers and screen wash for maximum visibility and switch on your demisters if necessary. For fastest demisting, use the AC with the temperature set at 'hot'. This will also clear condensation from other windows.
  • Switch off the radio you will need all your concentration.
  • If it is difficult to see the road surface, Street lamps and telegraph poles can be a useful guide as they tend to follow the contour of the road.
  • Drive defensively and always at a speed that will allow you to stop well within the distance you can see clearly.
  • Keep a safe distance from the car in front. In slippery conditions multiply the two second rule by at least five times as it takes ten times the normal braking distance to stop in snow and ice. Ignore this rule at your peril, if the car in front brakes suddenly, you will be too close for comfort.
  • Be aware that your braking system is likely to handle differently from normal road conditions, so use your brakes with caution.
  • Watch out for cyclists and pedestrians, parked or stranded vehicles, plus hidden obstacles covered by snow.
  • Be patient, avoid passing, overtaking, changing lanes or crossing traffic.
  • Do not accelerate to get away from a vehicle that is following too closely. Look for a lay-by to pull into and wait until the car passes before continuing your journey.
  • When taking corners or driving round bends in the road. Reduce speed before taking the bend. Any sudden acceleration or deceleration while turning may cause a skid. Controlled speed and smooth steering will help prevent wheels from skidding on a turn. If tyres lose their grip, ease off the accelerator, do not brake and turn your front wheels to the direction you want to travel.
  • Slow down before reaching traffic lights or road junctions. Scan all directions for cars and pedestrians. If you're having trouble, they most likely are too. After a stop, accelerate slowly to get moving again.
  • When approaching an icy hill, pick a path that will allow the most traction. Head for unpacked snow or powder where you'll get a better grip. Build speed gradually before reaching the hill and stay in a low or middle gear.
  • Use the same method when travelling down a hill. Avoid quick gear changes and heavy breaking as these lead to skidding.
  • Avoid sudden turns of the steering wheel or abrupt braking and accelerating as this can also cause you to skid.
  • Use extra care when approaching shaded areas such as tree-lined roads, bridges, and flyovers. These sections of road typically freeze much sooner in cold weather and stay frozen long after the sun has risen.
  • Watch out for black and shiny road surfaces as this could be BLACK ICE. These areas can cause your vehicle to suddenly lose traction. Don't panic, slow down and keep your foot off the brake, a steady slow speed is what is needed on black ice.
  • Avoid skidding by driving carefully and smoothly. The gentle use of the accelerator, steering wheel and particularly brakes will help keep you in control.
  • If your rear wheels start to skid, gently steer in the direction you want to travel. Do not brake, ease off the accelerator and if your rear wheels are sliding left, steer left. If they're sliding right, steer right. As you try to recover control, you may find that your rear wheels start to slide in the other direction, again ease your steering wheel in that direction. You may have to steer left and right a few times before you regain control and traction is once again delivered to your wheels.
  • If you feel your front wheels slide, do not brake, ease of the accelerator, depress the clutch or put the engine in neutral. Do not try to steer immediately, let the front wheels bring your speed down as they slide sideways and as traction returns, steer in the direction you want to go. When control is achieved, put the car in drive or release the clutch and accelerate gently forwards.
  • On snowy, wet and slushy roads, large vehicles can blow snow and slush on to your windscreen, leading to a sudden loss of visibility. Always drive defensively and leave enough space to avoid their snow spray.
  • Use low gears to keep traction, especially on hills.
  • Don't use cruise control or overdrive on icy roads.
  • Watch out for gritter Lorries. When approaching them from behind, slow down, stay back from the salty grit spray and be patient. Only pass when it is safe to do so.
  • Turn back if you think the conditions are too treacherous. Driving in snow and ice can be stressful and can cause eye strain, take regular rest breaks, it is better to arrive home late than not at all.

If you get stuck

The thing to remember when freeing a vehicle from snow and ice is to use finesse rather than power. Hard acceleration is likely to worsen the situation by causing the tyres to dig the car deeper into the snow. If you do get stuck follow these guidelines;

  • Do not spin your wheels. This will only dig you in deeper.
  • Turn your wheels from side to side a few times to push snow out of the way.
  • Try rocking the vehicle. (Check your owner's manual first, it can damage the transmission on some vehicles.) Shift from forward to reverse, and back again. Each time you're in gear, give a light touch on the accelerator until the vehicle gets going.
  • If the above does not free you, use a shovel to clear snow away from the wheels and the underside of the car. If you try to free your vehicle from the snow, be careful. Dress warmly, shovel slowly and do not overexert yourself.
  • Do not attempt to shovel snow or push your vehicle if you have a medical condition. Body heat is retained when clothing is kept dry. Wet clothing, due to the weather or perspiration, can lead to a dangerous loss of body heat.
  • If you have cat litter or if there is a salt grit box handy, spread the cat litter or grit under the path of the wheels. If there is no grit or cat litter available place a sackcloth or material under the wheels to help get traction. If this doesn't work, try some twigs or small branches.

If you become stranded in moderate weather

  • If your car stalls or becomes disabled on a road or carriageway, turn your vehicle's hazard warning lights on.
  • Do not try to push the car off the road. To avoid injury from a rear shunt and if it is safe to do so, get out of the car, move well away from the vehicle and call 999 to let the operator know of your emergency.

If you become snowbound in severe weather

It is very rare in the UK that vehicles become trapped in snow, but sadly it has happed. Reading the following advice will help if it happens to you.

  • If you are trapped in snow and if you have a mobile phone call 999 to let the police know of your emergency.
  • If you do not have a phone or the area has poor reception, stay in your vehicle until help arrives. It provides excellent temporary shelter and makes it easier for rescuers to locate you. Don't try to walk in a severe storm. It is easy to loose sight of your vehicle in blowing snow and become lost.
  • Tie a brightly coloured cloth to the radio antenna or place a cloth at the top of a rolled up window to signal distress. At night, keep one interior light on if possible. It only uses a small amount of battery power and will make it easier for rescuers to find you.
  • Make sure the exhaust pipe is not clogged with snow, ice or mud. A blocked exhaust could cause deadly carbon monoxide gas to leak into the passenger compartment with the engine running.
  • Use whatever is available to insulate your body from the cold. This could include placing floor mats, newspapers or paper maps between yourself and your clothing. If you have passengers, huddling together will preserve warmth.
  • From time to time, slightly turn down a window to freshen up the stale air and to guard against carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Run the engine and heater periodically just long enough to remove the chill and to conserve fuel.

Safety Tips for Driving in Snow or on Ice

Tips and Advice Article No 63 RoadDriver 2010

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