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Auto Trader Winter Driving Study

Freezing temperatures, ice and snow can make the roads a dangerous place, but don’t worry, here’s our advice to help keep you safe and sound this winter.

Our recent survey of the UK public showed that more than a quarter of drivers (28%) are scared to drive in the snow, and that 80% of drivers didn't know the correct safe stopping distance for driving in icy conditions.

Download the full winter driving study here.

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Vision when driving in winter

Legally you must always be able to see when driving, with all snow and ice cleared from your windows (Highway Code – Rule 229).

To make sure you’ve got the clearest vision, clean your windscreen inside and out. Any leftover dirt or snow could obscure your view and result in a fine, so be thorough and remember to clear any snow from the roof (this way it won’t fall onto the windscreen).

We also recommend you pack a pair of sunglasses to combat the added glare of snow and wintery skies.

De-icer
Don’t use boiling water to clear your windscreen – the sudden change in temperature can cause the glass to crack. Tepid or warm water is less likely to cause cracks but could freeze and result in thicker ice.

Instead, apply de-icer to break down the ice. If the ice is thick, use your window scraper to score the ice as this can improve the de-icer’s effectiveness. Tip: applying de-icer the night before can prevent ice building up.

Demisting
Don’t start driving until your windscreen is fully demisted. If you’re steamed up, try using air-con to clear the screen – it’s faster and results in less condensation. Do not, like 11% of respondents, stick your head out of the window and set off.

Wipers
If it’s particularly cold or frosty, then leaving your windscreen wipers on auto while parked should be a no-go. If they freeze to the screen you could damage the blades, the wiper’s motor, and even risk small scratches to your windscreen. For those reasons, we also recommend you replace worn or damaged blades to keep the risk of damage down.

You said

  • 67% own a window scraper
  • 56% keep de-icer in their car
  • 25% clear their windscreen with boiling water when it snows
  • 21% start driving despite my windscreen being only partially demisted
  • 11% start their journey with their head out of the window if the windscreen is too icy
A man scraping heavy ice from his windscreen
A man sat in an ice-covered car, waiting for his screen to clear

Batteries and electrics in winter

Extremely cold weather can affect the performance of a battery, most commonly meaning it’s harder to start the engine. On top of that, running lights, heaters and wipers more frequently in winter weather means there're more demands on your battery.

So, it’s worth taking a look before winter sets in. If your battery is more than five-years-old (the average life expectancy), consider getting it replaced. Your local garage will be able to check its health for you.

Cleaning your battery
If there’s any obvious damage to the battery, best leave it to a professional to check. If you do want to clean the battery yourself, disconnect the negative first to avoid getting a shock (and reconnect the negative last for the same reason).

You can clean the terminals with a strong mix of warm water and baking soda, which will fizz. Use an old toothbrush or wire brush for this and dry the connections after with some paper towels. Applying some petroleum jelly to the exposed metal bits can help prevent future corrosion.

Troubleshooting
If your engine doesn’t start, wait at least 30 seconds between attempts and turn off electric-dependent features like lights, window heaters and wipers. If you’re having no luck, it may need charging.

With batteries, prevention is better than a cure – just keep your battery topped up. A short journey will allow the battery to recharge itself effectively. If you don’t use your car very often, a regular overnight trickle charge will help maintain battery health.

Related: How to jump start a car.
A saloon car driving in light snow
A car battery

Engines and anti-freeze in cold weather

To reduce the risk of engine damage, consider changing your oil. Dirty oil can become more viscous in cold weather (especially diesel), and it may struggle to flow through the engine properly.

Related: What oil does my car need?

Adding anti-freeze can reduce the risk of a frozen and cracked engine. You’ll need a 50-50 mix of antifreeze and water, which is added to the water in the engine's cooling system.

You should also check your coolant level is between the min and max mark.

Additionally, make sure you’re topped up with screenwash. Make sure it’s proper screenwash rather than just water, so it doesn’t freeze, and don’t accidentally put anti-freeze in your washer bottle.

While you’re checking your fluid levels, clear all the leaves from the edge of your bonnet. They could block the drains that take away rainwater, which could lead to water leaking into your car.

Troubleshooting
You may face serious issues in the event of your engine freezing.

If your car overheats a few miles into your journey, there’s a chance the radiator is frozen. Should this be the case, you should pull over as soon as it’s safe to avoid causing serious damage.

If you hear a prolonged squealing sound, the water pump could be frozen and will need to thaw out — again you should stop as soon as it’s safe to prevent serious damage.

You said

  • 54% know for certain where to put coolant and anti-freeze in their car
  • 50% keep their car topped up with anti-freeze
  • 8% have never opened their car bonnet
Cars covered in heavy snow

Tyres in winter

Check your tyres for any obvious faults such as cracks or splits, but also check your tread depth. The legal minimum limit is 1.6mm, but in snow and icy conditions it’s better to have a minimum of 3mm of tread on your tyres as that helps with traction and grip. You can check using a tread depth gauge or get a rough idea by looking at the tread wear indicators on your tyre.

Also, check you’ve got the correct tyre pressure — you can find the recommended PSI (pounds per square inch) figure in your manual, or online. On most cars, these can also be found on a plate located in either the frame of the driver’s door, the frame of the front passenger door or under the fuel flap. If it needs topping up, there’s an air pump at most petrol stations, or you can buy a kit to keep at home.

Related: Learn about tyre speed ratings.

Improving tyre grip on snow and ice
Letting air out of your tyres won’t create more grip and it’s unsafe. You could add snow chains to your tyres, but you should only do this if there’s enough snow to prevent damage.

You may want to consider winter tyres or all-season tyres, which provide better grip and shorter stopping distances in cold and wet driving conditions. Just remember that winter tyres need to be changed back to summer tyres when weather warms up, because winter tyres don’t work as well and wear faster in temperatures above 4 degrees.

You said

  • 6% add winter tyres when it snows
  • 5% use snow socks when it snows
  • 5% use snow chains when it snows
A car tyre lightly dusted in snow
Tyre tracks in snow

Preparing your car for winter driving

First up: make sure you have enough fuel in the tank to last what could be a long and stressful journey.

When your car isn’t is use, consider keeping it in a garage or under a cover — which can help prevent fluids freezing, protect the car from salt being spread nearby, and save you time in the mornings by removing the need to de-ice.

If your car is due a service, consider getting it done before winter weather sets in properly — and ask if your garage offers winter specific services.

And if you don’t want to check tyres and engines yourself, see about a professional winter car check (which are normally inexpensive and sometimes free).

Before you set off

As per the Highway Code (Rule 228) you should check weather forecasts before you set off. If extreme ice or snow is forecast, you should avoid non-essential journeys.

If you have to travel, give yourself time to de-ice and clean your car before you set off.

Allow extra time for journeys and consider including major roads, as these are more likely to be cleared and gritted. You’ll likely face delays, so make sure you have enough fuel (as above).

We also advise you pack an emergency kit. While you may be well-prepared for driving in adverse weather, you could still encounter a traffic accident or a jack-knifed lorry.
A traffic jam caused by poor weather conditions

Winter driving emergency kit

We recommend your winter driving emergency kit includes at least the following:
• De-icer
• Ice scraper
• Warning triangle
• Hi-vis jacket
• First aid kit
• Torch
• Jump leads
• Shovel
• Emergency food (like high-energy cereal bars)
• Phone charger or charge pack

Make sure you’ve got a breakdown service number saved on your phone, and keep a copy written down in the glovebox — just in case your phone battery dies or you can’t get signal.

If you have spare carpet or similar, leave it in the boot and use it if your tyres are stuck or spinning.

If you get stuck in snow
If you get stuck, straighten your steering and clear the snow from under your wheels. Lay the carpet or sack under the wheels, which will give your tyres extra grip. Don’t forget to pick your carpet back up once you’re moving again.
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Driving in snow and ice

Snow and ice mean the risk of losing grip is much higher than normal, but you can reduce this by making sure all your inputs into the car are as gentle as possible. This means the brakes, the steering and the accelerator.

If possible, pull away in second gear and avoid wheel-spin by gently easing off the clutch. If you drive an automatic car, then check your handbook for specific advice. Some automatics have a ‘winter’ mode.
Speed
Stopping distances can be 10 times longer in snow and ice, so it’s imperative that you drive slowly. You’re advised to drive at a slow speed in as high a gear as possible and be gentle when braking or making manoeuvres.

Keep your speed down, but don’t lock up your wheels. Anti-lock brakes (ABS) can normally handle this in modern cars, but they may struggle in snow and ice. To avoid relying on your brakes, ease off the accelerator early.
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Approaching hills
If driving uphill, leave plenty of room between yourself and the vehicle in front so you don’t have to stop midway. Keep a steady speed and try not to change gear.

Similarly, when driving downhill you should leave plenty of room. Drive slowly to avoid braking where possible and use a low gear.
Look and listen
This is good advice all year round, but when temperatures drop you should watch the road extra closely to make sure you don’t hit patches of ice — or other drivers suddenly skidding.

Try to keep the sound system at a lower volume than normal, so you can hear what’s going on under the car when there’s snow, ice or slush around. The sound from the tyres will change when the surface underneath changes, so it can serve as an early warning of impending danger.

Even when snow and ice start thawing, there are plenty of places where slippery areas can linger, such as under bridges or in the shade of trees.

When the snow and ice has melted, you’re likely to be faced with wet road surfaces and potentially even flooding which means there’s a risk of aquaplaning. To get through floodwater safely, drive slowly and keep your steering straight, then check your brakes when you’re on the other side.

Read our guide to driving in floods and heavy rain for more.
Other road users
Keep your distance from other road users, including pedestrians and cyclists who may be less visible in poor weather.

Don’t overtake snowploughs unless the lane you’re intending to use is clear, and be aware they may throw snow out on either side. Similarly, be aware when overtaking gritters or other vehicles spreading salt / de-icer. If nothing else, it could damage your car.
A wing-mirror frosted over
An SUV driving slowly through snow

Driving in poor visibility

Whether you’re driving in heavy snow or rain, or simply driving in the longer dark nights, you’ll need to make sure that you’re visible to other drivers.

Use your headlights in reduced visibility. You can use fog lights if visibility is reduced to 100m, just make sure you switch them off again when visibility improves.

Make sure all your lights are working and that the lenses are clean. Lights may get splashed with snow and slush when driving so ensure they’re clean before you set off. Similarly, make sure your number plates are clean (you can be fined if they aren’t).

Related: Xenon and LED car lights explained.

Download Auto Trader's free winter driving study.

A car approaches on snowy road, as seen through a wing mirror

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