10 Tips to Driving in the Winter

Driving in the Winter

Driving in winter presents unique challenges that can be daunting, especially for learner drivers.

The UK’s winter weather, which often includes rain, snow, and ice, can make roads hazardous. To help you stay safe, here are ten essential tips for winter driving.

1. Check or Swap Your Tyres

Importance of Winter Tyres

One of the most critical aspects of driving in winter is ensuring your tyres are suitable for the conditions.

Check or Swap Your Tyres

Winter tyres are specifically designed to handle cold, wet, icy, and snowy conditions. They differ from regular tyres in several key ways:

  • Rubber Composition: Winter tyres are made from a softer rubber compound that remains flexible in low temperatures, providing better grip and traction.
  • Tread Pattern: The tread pattern on winter tyres is designed to channel snow, slush, and water away from the tyre, reducing the risk of aquaplaning and improving traction.
  • Sipes: These are small slits in the tread blocks that provide additional biting edges for better grip on icy and snowy surfaces.

Investing in winter tyres can significantly improve your car’s handling and safety during the colder months.

Checking Tyre Tread Depth

Regardless of whether you use winter tyres or standard ones, maintaining adequate tread depth is essential for safe driving.

The legal minimum tread depth for tyres in the UK is 1.6mm across the central three-quarters of the tyre, around its entire circumference.

However, experts recommend a minimum tread depth of 3mm for winter driving. Here’s how you can check your tyre tread depth:

  • Tread Depth Gauge: Use a tread depth gauge to measure the depth. Place the gauge in the tread grooves at several points around the tyre.
  • 20p Coin Test: Insert a 20p coin into the main tread grooves of the tyre. If the outer rim of the coin is visible, the tread is likely below the recommended depth, and you should consider replacing the tyre.

Maintaining proper tread depth ensures maximum contact with the road, improving grip and safety.

Maintaining Proper Tyre Pressure

Proper tyre pressure is crucial for maintaining optimal performance and safety, particularly in winter when temperatures fluctuate.

Incorrect tyre pressure can lead to reduced grip, increased stopping distances, and higher fuel consumption. Here’s how to ensure your tyres are properly inflated:

  • Regular Checks: Check your tyre pressure at least once a month and before long journeys. Use a reliable pressure gauge.
  • Manufacturer’s Recommendations: Refer to your vehicle’s manual or the sticker inside the driver’s door for the recommended tyre pressure. Remember that front and rear tyres might require different pressures.
  • Adjust for Temperature: Tyre pressure decreases in cold weather, so you might need to inflate your tyres slightly more than usual to compensate.

Properly maintained tyre pressure helps ensure your car handles predictably and safely on winter roads.

2. Check Your Windscreen Wipers

Importance of Clear Visibility

Clear visibility is paramount for safe driving, especially in winter when rain, snow, and sleet are common. Effective windscreen wipers are crucial for maintaining a clear view of the road.

Worn or damaged wipers can leave streaks or fail to clear the screen, significantly reducing visibility and increasing the risk of accidents.

Ensuring your windscreen wipers are in good condition is a simple but vital step in preparing for winter driving.

How to Check Wiper Condition

Regularly checking the condition of your windscreen wipers ensures they perform effectively when needed. Here’s a step-by-step guide to assess their condition:

  • Visual Inspection: Lift each wiper arm away from the windscreen and inspect the rubber blades. Look for any signs of cracking, splitting, or wear.
  • Touch Test: Run your fingers along the rubber blades to feel for any hard spots, cracks, or uneven edges.
  • Test Operation: Spray water on your windscreen and operate the wipers. Check for any streaking, smearing, or missed areas that indicate worn or damaged blades.

Check Your Windscreen Wipers

Replacing Worn Wiper Blades

If your wiper blades are worn or damaged, replacing them is essential for maintaining clear visibility. Here’s how you can replace your wiper blades:

  • Buy the Correct Blades: Consult your vehicle’s manual or measure your existing wiper blades to purchase the correct size. Many auto parts stores have guides to help you find the right blades for your car.
  • Remove Old Blades: Lift the wiper arm away from the windscreen. There is usually a small clip or button that holds the blade in place. Press the clip or button and slide the blade off the wiper arm.
  • Install New Blades: Slide the new wiper blade onto the wiper arm until you hear a click or it locks into place. Lower the wiper arm gently back onto the windscreen.
  • Test the New Blades: After installation, test the new blades to ensure they work correctly and clear the windscreen effectively.

Replacing worn wiper blades is a quick and inexpensive way to enhance your safety by ensuring you have the best possible visibility in adverse weather conditions.

3. Drive Slowly

Adapting to Road Conditions

In winter, road conditions can change rapidly due to snow, ice, or rain. Adapting your driving speed to the current conditions is crucial for safety.

Driving slowly gives you more time to react to unexpected situations, such as a car skidding or a pedestrian stepping onto the road.

Pay close attention to the road surface and be aware of potential hazards like black ice, which can be invisible but extremely slippery.

By reducing your speed, you increase your ability to control the vehicle and reduce the likelihood of accidents.

Importance of Increased Stopping Distances

In winter, it’s essential to maintain greater stopping distances between your vehicle and the one in front. Wet, icy, or snowy roads can significantly increase the distance needed to stop safely.

The Highway Code recommends at least double the normal stopping distance in wet conditions and up to ten times the distance on icy roads.

Always be cautious and leave plenty of space to ensure you have enough time to stop without skidding or losing control.

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Driving slowly and maintaining increased stopping distances are key to preventing collisions in winter weather.

Stopping distances

Handling Slippery Surfaces

Driving on slippery surfaces requires careful handling to avoid losing control of your vehicle. Here are some tips for managing these challenging conditions:

  • Gentle Inputs: Use gentle and gradual inputs for steering, acceleration, and braking. Sudden movements can cause your tyres to lose grip.
  • Engine Braking: Use your engine to slow down by gently easing off the accelerator rather than relying solely on the brakes. This helps maintain better control.
  • Correcting a Skid: If your vehicle starts to skid, remain calm. For a front-wheel skid, ease off the accelerator and steer in the direction you want to go. For a rear-wheel skid, steer into the skid (if the rear of your car is sliding left, steer left) and ease off the accelerator.

By driving cautiously and handling your vehicle gently, you can navigate slippery surfaces more safely.

4. Be Prepared for Emergencies

Essential Items for an Emergency Kit

Having an emergency kit in your car is vital during winter. This kit should contain items that will help you if you break down or get stuck in bad weather. Essential items to include are:

  • Blankets: To keep warm if you need to wait for help.
  • Torch: With extra batteries for visibility in the dark.
  • High-Visibility Jacket: To be seen by other road users.
  • First Aid Kit: For treating minor injuries.
  • Warning Triangle: To alert other drivers if you break down.
  • Ice Scraper and De-icer: To clear your windscreen.
  • Jump Leads: For starting a flat battery.
  • Shovel: For digging out of snow.
  • Phone Charger: To keep your phone charged in case you need to call for help.

Having these items on hand can make a significant difference in an emergency.

Creating a Winter Survival Kit

In addition to the essential items, a winter survival kit is specifically tailored to the challenges of winter driving. Here’s what you should include:

  • Extra Warm Clothing: Hats, gloves, and scarves to stay warm.
  • Food and Water: Non-perishable snacks and bottled water in case you are stranded for an extended period.
  • Snow Chains or Traction Mats: To help get your car moving if stuck in snow.
  • Sand or Cat Litter: For extra traction on icy roads.
  • Tow Rope: In case you need to be pulled out of a ditch or snowbank.
  • Maps: Physical maps in case your GPS fails or your phone battery dies.

A well-stocked winter survival kit ensures you are prepared for various scenarios and can stay safe until help arrives.

Emergency Procedures and Contacts

Knowing what to do in an emergency and having the right contacts can make all the difference. Here are some key procedures and contacts to keep in mind:

  • Stay with Your Vehicle: If you break down or get stuck, it’s generally safer to stay with your vehicle until help arrives. Your car provides shelter, and it’s easier for rescuers to locate a stationary vehicle.
  • Call for Help: Have the numbers for your breakdown service and local emergency services saved on your phone. If you don’t have a breakdown service, consider joining one.
  • Stay Visible: Use your hazard lights and set up your warning triangle to make your vehicle visible to other drivers.
  • Keep Warm: Use blankets and extra clothing to stay warm. Run the engine occasionally to keep the car warm, but ensure the exhaust pipe is clear of snow to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Communicate Your Location: When calling for help, provide your exact location. Use landmarks or GPS coordinates if possible.

Emergency Procedures and Contacts

Being prepared with an emergency kit, winter survival kit, and knowledge of emergency procedures ensures you can handle unexpected situations effectively.

5. Use Your Anti-lock Braking System

Understanding ABS Functionality

The Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) is a crucial safety feature in modern vehicles, designed to prevent the wheels from locking up during braking.

This system allows you to maintain steering control during an emergency stop, reducing the risk of skidding and collisions. Here’s how ABS works:

  • Sensors: Each wheel has sensors that monitor its speed. If the sensors detect that a wheel is about to lock up, they send a signal to the ABS control unit.
  • Control Unit: The ABS control unit processes the signals from the sensors and determines whether to reduce brake pressure.
  • Hydraulic Valves: The control unit sends signals to the hydraulic valves, which modulate brake pressure to prevent wheel lock-up. This process happens rapidly, often pulsing the brakes multiple times per second.

Understanding how ABS functions can help you appreciate its role in enhancing vehicle safety, especially in winter conditions where road surfaces are often slippery.

How to Use ABS Effectively

Using ABS effectively involves knowing how to respond when it activates. Here’s a guide on how to make the most of your ABS:

  • Firm and Steady Pressure: When braking in an emergency, apply firm and steady pressure to the brake pedal. Do not pump the brakes; the ABS will automatically pump them for you.
  • Maintain Steering Control: One of the main advantages of ABS is that it allows you to steer while braking. Keep your hands on the wheel and steer to avoid obstacles.
  • Feel the Pulsation: When ABS activates, you may feel a pulsation or a vibrating sensation in the brake pedal. This is normal and indicates that the system is working. Do not release the brake pedal when you feel this.

By using ABS correctly, you can maintain control of your vehicle and improve your chances of stopping safely.

Common Mistakes with ABS

Despite its benefits, some drivers make mistakes when using ABS. Avoid these common errors to ensure you use the system effectively:

  • Panic Releasing: Releasing the brake pedal when you feel the pulsation is a common mistake. Trust the system and keep applying steady pressure.
  • Overconfidence: While ABS improves braking safety, it doesn’t eliminate the need for cautious driving. Overconfidence can lead to driving too fast for conditions, reducing the effectiveness of ABS.
  • Ignoring Maintenance: Like all vehicle systems, ABS requires regular maintenance. Ensure your brakes are serviced regularly and any ABS-related warning lights are addressed promptly.

Avoiding these mistakes ensures that your ABS performs optimally, enhancing your safety on winter roads.

6. Check Your Car Battery

Importance of a Healthy Battery

A healthy battery is vital for reliable vehicle operation, especially in winter. Cold weather can significantly impact battery performance, making it harder to start your car.

A weak or old battery is more likely to fail in low temperatures, leaving you stranded. Here’s why maintaining a healthy battery is essential:

  • Cold Cranking Amps (CCA): The CCA rating indicates a battery’s ability to start an engine in cold temperatures. A higher CCA rating is better for winter conditions.
  • Electrical System: A healthy battery ensures your vehicle’s electrical systems, including lights, wipers, and heating, function properly during winter.
  • Avoiding Breakdowns: A reliable battery reduces the risk of breakdowns, which are particularly inconvenient and potentially dangerous in cold weather.

Ensuring your battery is in good condition can save you from the hassle and danger of winter breakdowns.

Testing Your Car Battery

Regular testing of your battery helps identify issues before they become serious problems. Here’s how you can test your battery:

  • Visual Inspection: Check for any signs of corrosion on the terminals and ensure the connections are tight and clean.
  • Voltage Test: Use a multimeter to measure the battery voltage. A fully charged battery should read around 12.6 volts. If the reading is below 12.4 volts, the battery may need charging or replacement.
  • Professional Testing: Many garages and auto parts stores offer free battery testing. These tests can measure the battery’s health and CCA rating more accurately than a simple voltage test.
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Regular testing ensures your battery remains reliable and capable of performing in winter conditions.

Replacing an Old or Weak Car Battery

If your battery is old or weak, replacing it before winter sets in is a wise precaution. Here’s how to replace your battery:

  • Choose the Right Battery: Refer to your vehicle’s manual or consult with a professional to choose a battery with the appropriate specifications, including the correct CCA rating for winter.
  • Safety First: Ensure the vehicle is off and the keys are removed before replacing the battery. Wear gloves and safety glasses to protect yourself from acid or sparks.
  • Disconnecting the Old Battery: Start by disconnecting the negative (-) terminal, followed by the positive (+) terminal. Remove any securing clamps or brackets.
  • Installing the New Battery: Place the new battery in the tray and secure it with clamps or brackets. Connect the positive (+) terminal first, followed by the negative (-) terminal. Ensure the connections are tight and free of corrosion.
  • Dispose of the Old Battery: Take the old battery to a recycling centre or a garage that offers battery disposal services.

Replacing an old or weak battery ensures your vehicle is ready to handle the demands of winter driving.

7. Ensure Your Headlights are on the Right Settings

Using Headlights in Poor Visibility

Proper use of headlights is crucial during winter when poor visibility due to fog, rain, snow, or early darkness is common.

Headlights not only help you see the road but also make your vehicle visible to other drivers. Here’s how to use your headlights effectively:

  • Dipped Beam: Use your dipped beam headlights when driving in poor visibility conditions, even during the day. This setting helps you see the road ahead and ensures you are visible to others.
  • Fog Lights: Use your fog lights in dense fog or heavy snow to improve visibility. Fog lights are designed to cut through fog and reduce glare, helping you see the road more clearly.
  • High Beam: Avoid using high beams in foggy or snowy conditions as they can reflect off the fog or snow, reducing visibility. High beams are best used on clear, dark roads when there is no oncoming traffic.

Using the correct headlight settings ensures you can see and be seen, enhancing safety in adverse weather conditions.

Correct Headlight Settings for Winter

Ensuring your headlights are set correctly for winter driving is essential. Misaligned headlights can reduce your visibility and dazzle other drivers. Here’s how to ensure your headlights are properly set:

  • Angle Adjustment: Check your vehicle’s manual for instructions on adjusting the headlight angle. The correct angle ensures your headlights illuminate the road ahead without blinding oncoming traffic.
  • Headlight Cleaning: Dirty headlights can significantly reduce light output. Clean your headlights regularly to maintain optimal visibility.
  • Bulb Check: Ensure all headlight bulbs are working correctly. Replace any burnt-out bulbs promptly.

Properly set headlights improve your ability to see and be seen, which is vital for safe winter driving.

Checking and Adjusting Headlights

Regularly checking and adjusting your headlights is a simple but important task. Here’s how to do it:

  • Park on a Level Surface: Park your car on a level surface facing a wall or garage door about 10-15 feet away.
  • Mark the Headlight Position: Turn on your dipped beams and mark the top and centre of the light beams on the wall with tape.
  • Adjust the Headlights: Open your bonnet and locate the headlight adjustment screws. These are usually found near the headlight assembly. Adjust the vertical and horizontal screws to align the beams with the marks on the wall.
  • Test the Adjustment: Take your car for a short drive to ensure the headlights are properly aligned and provide good visibility without blinding other drivers.

Regularly checking and adjusting your headlights ensures they provide the best possible illumination for safe winter driving.

8. Check Your Car Fluids

Importance of Antifreeze

Antifreeze is a critical fluid for winter driving. It prevents the engine coolant from freezing in low temperatures and helps regulate engine temperature. Here’s why maintaining the right level of antifreeze is essential:

  • Preventing Freezing: Antifreeze lowers the freezing point of the coolant, preventing it from turning to ice and damaging the engine.
  • Overheating Protection: It also raises the boiling point of the coolant, helping to prevent overheating.
  • Corrosion Inhibition: Antifreeze contains additives that prevent corrosion and rust within the cooling system, prolonging the life of the engine components.

Maintaining the correct level and concentration of antifreeze ensures your engine runs smoothly in winter.

Checking and Refilling Windshield Washer Fluid

Windshield washer fluid is vital for maintaining clear visibility in winter. It helps remove dirt, grime, and salt from your windscreen. Here’s how to check and refill it:

  • Check Fluid Level: Open the bonnet and locate the washer fluid reservoir. Check the fluid level and top it up if it’s low.
  • Use Winter-Grade Fluid: Use a winter-grade washer fluid that contains antifreeze agents to prevent it from freezing. This type of fluid is effective at removing ice and snow from your windscreen.
  • Test the System: After refilling, test the washer system to ensure the fluid sprays correctly and the wipers effectively clear the windscreen.

Regularly checking and refilling your windshield washer fluid helps maintain clear visibility in winter conditions.

Maintaining Engine Oil Levels

Maintaining the proper level of engine oil is crucial for engine performance and longevity, especially in winter.

Cold weather can thicken the oil, making it harder for the engine to circulate it. Here’s how to ensure your engine oil is at the correct level:

  • Check the Oil Level: Park your car on a level surface and wait for the engine to cool. Remove the dipstick, wipe it clean, reinsert it fully, then remove it again to check the oil level. The oil should be between the minimum and maximum marks on the dipstick.
  • Use the Right Oil: Use an oil with the correct viscosity rating for winter. Refer to your vehicle’s manual for the recommended oil type. Winter-grade oils are designed to flow better at low temperatures.
  • Top Up if Necessary: If the oil level is low, top it up with the recommended oil. Be careful not to overfill, as this can cause damage to the engine.

Regularly maintaining your engine oil ensures your engine runs smoothly and efficiently, even in cold weather.

9. Keep De-icer and Ice Scrapers in Your Car

Choosing the Right De-icer

Having the right de-icer is essential for quickly and efficiently clearing your windscreen on frosty mornings. De-icers come in various forms, and selecting the right one can make a significant difference:

  • Spray De-icer: This is the most common type and is easy to apply. It quickly melts ice and frost on your windscreen. Look for a de-icer that works in very low temperatures and acts fast.
  • Gel De-icer: These are designed to stick to the surface longer, providing prolonged de-icing action. They are useful in extremely cold conditions.
  • Homemade Solutions: A mixture of water and isopropyl alcohol or vinegar can also serve as a de-icer. However, commercial products are generally more effective and less likely to damage your car.
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Choosing the right de-icer ensures you can clear your windscreen swiftly and start your journey safely.

Proper Use of Ice Scrapers

Ice scrapers are essential tools for removing ice from your windscreen and windows. Proper use of an ice scraper ensures you clear ice effectively without damaging your car:

  • Start with De-icer: Apply de-icer first to loosen the ice, making it easier to scrape off.
  • Use the Right Technique: Hold the ice scraper at a slight angle to the glass and use firm, even strokes. Avoid using the scraper on dry glass as it can cause scratches.
  • Be Gentle on the Wipers: Lift the windscreen wipers off the glass to avoid damaging the rubber blades while scraping.

Using an ice scraper correctly helps maintain your windscreen’s clarity and integrity.

Additional Tools for Clearing Ice

In addition to de-icer and ice scrapers, other tools can help you clear ice from your car more effectively:

  • Heated Ice Scrapers: These scrapers have built-in heating elements that help melt ice as you scrape, making the job quicker and easier.
  • Snow Brushes: These are useful for removing snow before you start de-icing. Look for a brush with soft bristles to avoid scratching your paintwork.
  • Frost Covers: Placing a frost cover over your windscreen overnight can prevent ice from forming, saving you time in the morning.

Having a variety of tools ensures you are well-prepared for any icy conditions.

10. Check the Weather

Importance of Weather Awareness

Being aware of the weather conditions before you set out on a journey is crucial, especially in winter. Weather awareness helps you prepare for potential hazards and adjust your driving plans accordingly:

  • Road Safety: Knowing about snow, ice, fog, or heavy rain can help you drive more cautiously and avoid dangerous situations.
  • Journey Planning: Understanding the weather forecast allows you to plan your journey to avoid the worst conditions or delays.
  • Emergency Preparedness: Being aware of severe weather warnings ensures you are prepared for emergencies, such as getting stranded in snow.

Staying informed about the weather helps ensure your safety on the road.

Best Sources for Weather Updates

Reliable and up-to-date weather updates are essential for making informed decisions about your travel plans. Here are some of the best sources for accurate weather information:

  • Met Office: The UK’s national weather service provides detailed forecasts, severe weather warnings, and real-time updates.
  • Weather Apps: Apps like BBC Weather, Met Office Weather, and Weather Channel offer convenient and timely updates on your smartphone.
  • Local Radio: Tuning into local radio stations can provide real-time weather updates and traffic information, which is particularly useful when on the road.
  • Online Forecasts: Websites such as the Met Office, BBC Weather, and AccuWeather provide comprehensive weather forecasts and maps.

Met Office logo

Utilising these sources ensures you have the latest information to plan your journey safely.

Planning Your Journey According to Weather Conditions

Planning your journey with the weather in mind is essential for safe winter driving. Here’s how to adjust your plans based on weather conditions:

  • Avoid Peak Weather: If severe weather is forecast, try to travel before it hits or postpone your journey until conditions improve.
  • Check Road Conditions: Look for updates on road conditions, closures, and any accidents caused by the weather. This information is often available on traffic news websites and local radio stations.
  • Allow Extra Time: Give yourself plenty of time to reach your destination. Winter conditions often require slower driving speeds and increased stopping distances.
  • Alternative Routes: Have an alternative route planned in case your main route is impassable or heavily congested.

By planning your journey according to the weather conditions, you can enhance your safety and reduce stress during winter travel.

Frequently asked questions

Winter tyres are made from a softer rubber compound that stays flexible in low temperatures, providing better grip and traction on cold, wet, icy, and snowy roads.

Their special tread patterns and sipes enhance control and safety in winter conditions.

You can check the tread depth using a tread depth gauge or by inserting a 20p coin into the tread grooves.

If the outer rim of the coin is visible, your tread depth is likely below the recommended level, and you should consider replacing the tyre as your tread needs to be a minimum of 1.6mm.

Your winter emergency kit should include:

  • Blankets
  • A torch with extra batteries
  • A high-visibility jacket
  • A first aid kit
  • A warning triangle
  • An ice scraper
  • De-icer
  • Jump leads
  • A shovel
  • A phone charger

To use ABS effectively, apply firm and steady pressure to the brake pedal without pumping it.

ABS will automatically modulate the brakes, preventing wheel lock-up and allowing you to maintain steering control.

Cold weather can significantly affect battery performance, making it harder to start your car.

A healthy car battery ensures reliable vehicle operation and reduces the risk of breakdowns in winter conditions.

It’s advisable to test your car battery at least once a month during the winter.

Regular testing can help identify any potential issues early and ensure your battery remains reliable in cold weather.

Use fog lights in dense fog or heavy snow to improve visibility. They are designed to cut through fog and reduce glare, helping you see the road more clearly.

Avoid using them in clear conditions as they can dazzle other drivers.

Spray de-icers are the most common and easy to apply, quickly melting ice and frost.

Gel de-icers provide prolonged de-icing action and are useful in extremely cold conditions. Choose a de-icer that works in very low temperatures and acts fast.

Antifreeze prevents the engine coolant from freezing in low temperatures and helps regulate engine temperature.

It also contains additives that prevent corrosion within the cooling system, protecting your engine components.

If you encounter black ice, remain calm and avoid sudden movements. Ease off the accelerator and steer gently in the direction you want to go. Do not brake harshly, as this can cause the vehicle to skid.