Before winter sets in, prepare your car for the impending bad weather. Check your tyres have sufficient tread, change the oil, test your brakes and charge your battery. Add antifreeze to your radiator, and make sure that your spark plugs are in good condition. In addition, put a breakdown kit in your car, so that if you do end up stranded then at least you will be safe and warm.

Even if your car has fresh tyres and is in a good state of repair, driving in icy conditions requires care and attention. Stopping distances can be ten times longer than normal, and it is easy to enter into a skid without warning. Get used to pulling away in second gear, driving slowly and leaving plenty of space between yourself and other motorists. Give yourself extra time to reach your destination, and try to only drive when it is absolutely necessary.

Winter Driving Preparation

Before you head off on a car journey in the winter, it is important to make sure that both you and your car are prepared for the journey. Cold weather is hard on your car, and you should do some basic checks on your car's safety each morning. It takes just a minute or two to check that your lights are working and that your tyres are still firm; these basic checks could save your life.

In addition, make sure that you and all of your passengers are dressed appropriately for the weather. Even if it is fairly mild right now, it is a good idea to keep a blanket and some other cold-weather gear in the car, especially for longer journeys. The weather can change quite quickly in the winter.

This handy winter driving checklist includes a list of things to remember before you go driving in the winter weather. It covers checks for your car, and things that you should pack for both safety and comfort. Consider packing a winter driving survival kit and keeping it in your car at all times so you are never caught unprepared.

Car Batteries in Cold Weather

Battery problems are one of the most common causes of vehicle breakdowns, even during the summer months, but they are especially common during the winter. Cold temperatures reduce the power output of your battery and also reduce its ability to accept a charge. These problems are then enhanced by the fact that drivers place more stress on their batteries during the winter, running heaters and lights for longer periods of time.

The good news is that most battery problems can be avoided. Ideally you should replace your car battery every five years, and re-charge it on a regular basis. Drivers who tend to do only short journeys and those who use their cars only infrequently should purchase an intelligent charger or battery conditioner which they can use to keep the battery topped up without the risk of over-charging it.

Even a well-cared for battery may occasionally let you down. If your car refuses to start on a cold morning, remain calm. Switch off your lights, wipers, heater and anything else that may drain power, and disconnect any devices you are charging in your car. In addition, check that the battery terminals are clean and not corroded. In many cases, this will reduce the load on the battery enough that it will be able to start and you can drive home. Test the battery when you get home, and charge or replace it as soon as possible.

If the battery is completely dead, you may need to get another driver to jump-start your car. It is a good idea to have a set of jump cables in your car at all times for this purpose.

Visibility Issues

Visibility can be a serious problem during the winter. The days are shorter, so even if you primarily use your car to commute to and from work you will find yourself driving in the dark fairly regularly. In addition rain and snow can obscure your vision and the low winter sun can dazzle you during the day, especially if it has been snowing.

To stay safe while driving in the winter, clean your windscreen regularly and make sure it is free from scratches, smears and abrasion. Replace your windscreen wipers on a regular basis, and keep your windscreen washer fluid topped up.

Check your lights are working before every journey, and make sure that the lenses are clean. If your car is covered in snow, remove the snow from the lights, your windows, and the roof before you start driving. This will reduce the risk of snow obscuring your vision while you are on the road.

If you are still struggling to see, use your front and rear fog lights, but remember to turn them off again when visibility improves so that you do not dazzle other drivers.

Antifreeze Tips

Keeping your car topped up with antifreeze is essential if you want to make sure that your engine runs well during the colder months. There are several different forms of antifreeze, and it is important that you choose the right type for the part of the engine you are caring for. In addition, you should make sure that the antifreeze is mixed correctly before you put it in your radiator. Putting neat antifreeze into the system could cause lasting damage.

Antifreeze is toxic and therefore must be handled with care. Most car manufacturers recommend that you have your car's cooling system flushed out and completely refilled every five years. It is a good idea to take your car to a garage to have this done professionally. The mechanic can inspect your cooling system to make sure there are no cracked hoses or other issues that could lead to leaks or problems in the long term.

If you drain your cooling system yourself, be sure to catch the water from the reservoir and dispose of it with a facility capable of handling hazardous waste. Do not simply pour the antifreeze down the drain.

Braking on Ice

Most people do not get a lot of practice driving in wet or icy conditions. This means that when winter comes around, we run a higher risk of being involved in an accident. The most common instinctive reaction to feeling your tyres start to slip is to slam the brakes on as hard as possible, but this is actually the worst thing that you can do. Sudden, aggressive braking removes traction from your car's tyres and makes the vehicle harder to control.

When you feel that your car is entering a skid, the best response is to release the accelerator so that the car slows down on its own. Because the tyres are moving you will still have some traction and therefore can steer yourself out of any impending collision. To prevent loss of control in the first place, try to brake slowly and gently, before you reach a corner and then release the brakes slowly as you turn. If you have anti-lock brake systems in your car you may get away with braking slowly and with even pressure during a skid. If you do not have ABS, then you should pump the brakes by pressing and releasing them repeatedly to slow down without losing traction.

Tyres and Snow Chains Advice

In countries which routinely experience heavy snow and harsh winters, drivers are accustomed to changing their tyres in the winter. This is less common in the UK, because winters are often mild. Whether you choose to buy special winter tyres or not, it is important to look after your car.

You should make sure that your tyres have at least 3mm of tread all the way around for driving in the winter. Do not reduce your tyre pressure to try to improve your grip - not only does this not work but it can actually damage the tyres and reduce your car's stability.

Changing tyres can be a lot of work. One popular option is to carry snow chains or snow socks, which can be fitted to your car if you find yourself in a situation where your tyres simply don't have enough traction.

In the UK snow chains should only be used when there is a layer of snow or ice over the road and must be removed when the snow or ice clears up. Whether or not your car can accept snow chains will depend on the wheel and tyre configuration of your vehicle. Some configurations do not leave enough room for the chains to be installed and if you try to use them you might damage your suspension, brakes or bodywork. Check your car's handbook for more information.

Snow socks are designed to offer a lightweight and practical alternative to snow chains, offering improved traction over bare tyres when you are caught out in icy conditions. Snow socks are textile covers that are fitted over tyres to give extra grip in ice and snow. While not as effective as snow chains in severe winter driving conditions, snow socks are useful for short driving distances on smaller roads that have not been gritted.

Driving on Snow and Ice Techniques

Driving on snow and ice is dangerous and requires concentration. In general, it is a good idea to limit yourself only to essential journeys when the roads are icy or visibility is poor. Even if you are a good driver, you cannot control what other road users do and it only takes one person to lose control of their vehicle for there to be a serious accident.

Some useful rules of thumb for driving in bad weather are:

  • Plan ahead, and pack appropriate clothing and car maintenance gear for longer journeys
  • Check that your car is in good condition before you start the journey
  • Keep your speeds as low as is practical for the road in question
  • Leave plenty of space between you and the car in front
  • Slow down in advance of corners and release the brakes as you turn
  • If you need to go up an icy or slippery hill, make sure the top of the hill is clear before you start
  • Learn how to use ABS or how to brake safely without it, so you can control skids

Consider taking an advanced driving course so that you can learn how to recover from skids and how to handle your car in dangerous conditions. This will give you peace of mind and confidence for handling extreme weather.