How to drive in the winter

Winter weather doesn’t just put our cars through testing times. It also pushes us drivers to – and occasionally beyond – the limits. Follow our tips to keep yourself safe.

Words by: First published: 1st December 2015
The sight of snow on a Christmas card may well bring a smile to your face, but winter is more likely to bring a tear to your eye if you're a driver. The prospect of snow, ice and treacherous roads is a grim one, but if you follow our tips below, you can help to ensure the worst of the weather passes without incident.
Be prepared
The most important thing is to make sure you’re ready for the bad weather in advance. That means preparing your car, and checking everything from the tyres to the oil, the coolant and the windscreen washer fluid. You can read our full article on ‘How to prepare your car for winter’ by clicking on this link.

Once the bad weather kicks in, you should only drive if your journey is essential; but, if it is, the following tips will help you stay safe – and on the road.
Before you start driving, make sure you can see out of every window. Clear away any snow, water or condensation, and make sure that the entire window is clear. The last thing you want is for your view out of the car to be akin to looking out of your house through the letter box.

If the windows are misted up on the inside, use the air-conditioning to help clear it away as quickly as possible. Also, if it has snowed, make sure you clear any snow away from the roof or bodywork of your car, as you must ensure that it doesn’t fall on any car that’s following you.

It’s also worth keeping a pair of sunglasses in the car, as the glare of bright sunlight off snow and ice can be almost blinding.
How to drive in the winter
How to drive in the winter
…and be seen
Given that winter brings longer hours of darkness, as well an increased likelihood of rain, fog and snow, it’s important that your cleaning doesn’t stop at the car windows. It’s vital that the car’s lights, indicators and mirrors are working as well as they can. Last, but not least, don’t forget to clean the number plates – it’s a legal requirement that they can be read, and poor weather is no excuse for them not to be.

On the other hand, when you’re on the road, don’t leave your foglights on for longer than is necessary, as they can easily be bright enough to dazzle other drivers.
Take your time
Rain and snow can only reduce the grip your car has on the road, so slow down and allow more time for your journey. Factor in time to get your car ready to drive in the first place, too.
Think ahead
It makes a lot of sense to plan any journey in advance; and, stick to the main roads, as these are much more likely to have been treated. Likewise, the extra traffic on the main roads will help to keep them clear.

Remember, too, that even once the snow and ice start to thaw, there are often places where it thaws more slowly: under bridges and in the shade of trees, for example. So, look ahead and see where the road goes, as it could suddenly become treacherous. Likewise, think carefully before you follow in another car’s wheeltracks, as they could just compact the ice, making it even more slippery.

If you’ve been using the wipers, don’t stop the car with them halfway through a sweep of the windscreen. If you start the car with them frozen in place and the wipers ‘on’, it can cause them major damage.
How to drive in the winter
How to drive in the winter
Pay attention
Keep the stereo turned down or - preferably - off, as it’s important to be able to hear what’s going on. The sound from the tyres will vary enormously depending on what sort of surface you’re driving on (snow, ice, slush and so on), and a change in tyre noise could be the first sign that the road surface has deteriorated. And, difficult as it may be, The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) recommends that you don’t make the cabin too hot, as it can make the driver drowsy.

When you’re on the move, keep an eye all around you. In bad weather – and especially in snow and ice – out-of-control cars can come from pretty much anywhere; and, the same goes for other road users. Even when it’s not snowy, a sudden gust of wind can cause havoc.

Remember, too, that it’s not just snow and ice you need to worry about. Rain can lead to lots of standing water, spray and even flooding. If you do have to drive through water, steer clear of the deepest puddles – which tend to be at the sides of the road – and slow down to lower the possibility of aquaplaning (when the tyres can’t clear the water away and end up riding up onto a cushion of water, rendering the car out of control). Then, once you’ve gone through the puddle, check your brakes are working.
Be gentle
If you’re driving on snow or ice, you must be gentle with all the controls – and that includes everything from starting to stopping and steering. When you pull away, start off in second gear, slipping the clutch if necessary, to reduce the risk of wheelspin; and, once you’re on the move, change up gear more quickly than you would in the dry. If you drive a car with an automatic gearbox, see if it has a ‘winter’ mode or something similar; and, if it has, engage it.
Judge your speed carefully
Driving in the snow requires a careful balancing act, says the IAM. You need enough speed to maintain momentum, but not so much that you lose control. To keep an idea of just how slippery it is, every so often, it’s worth testing the brakes and steering – but only on a piece of road and in conditions where it’s safe to do so.
How to drive in the winter
How to drive in the winter
Watch your brakes
Keep away from the brakes as much as you can, as they can easily lock a wheel in the snow and ice; and, the same is true even in a car with ABS. Truth is, anti-lock brakes aren't always 100% effective in the deepest winter weather.
Leave extra space
According to the Highway Code, stopping distances are as much as 10 times longer in the snow – and even in ‘just’ rain, they can double – so leave much more room between you and the vehicles in front.

If you’re faced with a hill, wait at the bottom until it’s clear all the way to the top. You may well need momentum to make it all the way up, and it’s easiest to pick up speed on the flat. The last thing you want is to have to stop halfway up, as you might not be able to get moving again.
Best foot(wear) forward
Always make sure you drive in dry shoes. If your shoes (or boots) have wet soles, they can easily slip off the pedals.
If the worst happens…
If you start to skid, the first thing to do is to ease off the throttle. Whatever you do, don’t hit the brakes, as this could lock the wheels and make things much worse. If the car starts to spin, steer into the skid.

However, as reader Keith Arksey has pointed out, it's important to note that, if you're on a very slippery surface and come off the gas, the consequent engine braking on the driven wheels can be enough to made the skid worse or induce a secondary skid. In such conditions, disengaging the clutch will allow the driven wheels to rotate freely, thus offering an opportunity to regain grip and control.

If you end up stuck in snow, clear as much snow as possible away from the wheels. Then, shuffle back- and forwards to get clear, always being easy with the accelerator to avoid wheelspin. If you still can’t escape, put something like a piece of cloth or old carpet (which you should keep in the car) under the wheels to get more traction.
Related topics:
Car ownership