With most of the UK affected by this week’s recent onset of extreme winter conditions, here are the Which? top ten tips to consider when driving at this time of year.
1) Don’t get a flat battery
Obviously regular servicing helps avoid this, but the cold, damp weather will find out a suspect battery and may even flatten a healthy one.
If you do lots of short, stop/start journeys, the drain of the heated rear screen, wipers and heater blower on the battery can soon flatten it. Give the car a good run on a fast road once a week in the winter. Thirty to fifty miles should be sufficient to re-charge the battery. And whenever you stop, turn all these extras off before stopping the engine.
2) See and be seen
Winter conditions throw up all sorts of mucky stuff, which gets all over the car. Make sure your windscreen washer bottle has a good mix of washer fluid – concentrated enough to ensure it won’t freeze, so you can keep your front and rear screens clear. And before you set off, clean the head- and tail-lamps and the number plates.
If your windscreen is frozen over, don’t use hot water to clear it, as this could crack the glass. Don’t use your windscreen wipers either, as this will damage the wiper blades. Use a window scraper, a can of de-icer and some elbow grease. And clear all the glass – not just a couple of peep holes.
Not only will this help you to see and be seen, but it will keep you the right side of the law.
3) Check your tyres
You need as much grip as possible when driving in snow and ice, so make sure your vehicle’s tyres are in good condition and have adequate tread depth – and that includes the spare.
The law requires a minimum 1.6mm of tread across 75% of the width of the tyre, though in adverse conditions, motorists should consider changing tyres when they are down to 3.0mm.
Clean the tyres to look for any sidewall damage that may have resulted from hitting an object obscured by snow, or skidding into a kerb. Make sure the pressures are correct, in line with the manufacturer’s specifications.
If you own tyre chains, ensure they are the correct size for your vehicle.
4) Check the car’s service history
Make sure you had a service recently and make sure your engine coolant doesn’t freeze. Coolant, which is in your engine to cool it, also needs to have antifreeze in it to prevent it freezing up. If you aren’t sure if the antifreeze mix is strong enough, ask your local garage to check it.
5) Be prepared
You might well be glad you packed any or all of the following, if you find yourself in trouble:
• Blanket – you’d be surprised how quickly the temperature drops if the engine won’t run
• Torch – could mean the difference between being stuck and finding the fault and being on your way
• Rope – you never know when a passing motorist might be able to help you out, but only if you have one of these
• De-icer – saves on some valuable elbow grease
• In-car mobile phone charger – could be a life saver if you need to make an urgent call
• Tyre pump – imagine turning the despair of finding the spare is flat into the adulation and sheer relief of knowing it can be pumped up to save you being stranded
• Spare bulbs – these may get you out of trouble, but make sure you can fit them yourself, otherwise they are simply extra, fragile baggage
• Jump leads – just like the tow rope, having this could mean a passing motorist can help you on your way
• High visibility vest – whether you’re stuck on a country lane or a motorway hard-shoulder, you’ll prefer it if other drivers can see and avoid hitting you
• Shovel – So much handier for clearing snow than using your mitten-clad hands
6) Make a plan
If you know the route you are on, you’re less likely to get stuck. And if you do have to call for help, at least you’ll have some idea where to direct your rescuers to.
7) Let someone know
If you’re planning a trip during hazardous conditions, tell someone your plans, so that if you fail to show up, they can raise the alarm.
8) Driving in snow
Drive more slowly than usual, accelerating and braking gently and selecting a higher gear than you normally would, to avoid wheel-spin. Stick to main routes where the volume of traffic will clear the surface of snow. If the car begins to slide, take your foot off the brake and the throttle, steering into the skid until the car is back under control.
9) Driving on ice
This is altogether different from snow because you can’t always see it. Black ice forms on less busy roads, bridges and areas in the shade. Leave a larger gap than usual between you and the car in front. If they slow up, you may find you can’t stop quickly enough.
Avoid parking in tight spaces or too close to the kerb. If you lose traction when pulling away, you could easily end up sliding into anything close by. If parking in a bay, reverse the car in – this should make getting out again much easier – with a full view, and the steered wheels leading you out. If you have to park on a slope, make sure the front is pointing down the slope, so you aren’t trying to get traction to go up hill from a standing start.