Winter Driving - some really simple tips

Below are a handful of hints and tips on winter driving. None of them is rocket science but they might help to refresh your memory and prepare you mentally for what might lie ahead in the worst of the winter months.

Before we pick up a few of the points, it's worth bearing in mind these truths: driving in snow is different to driving on ice; rubber and ice don't mix; ABS has a seriously limited ability to help stop you in very low-grip situations; very, very small differences in speed can have dramatically different effects on how likely you are to maintain control (your ability to stop and/or steer) or the severity of the accident you might find yourself involved in...

Can you avoid winter driving?

Check the weather in advance - don't ignore police warnings about closed roads or advice not to travel on specific routes.

Can you work remotely or re-schedule your travel to avoid the worst aspects of the winter driving?


Allow extra time to prepare your car for the journey.

Always clear your windows, lights and mirrors. Don't forget that snow on the bonnet can blow onto your windscreen, so clear that off, and clear the roof to avoid snow being blown back onto traffic following you before you start your journey.

Make sure you have an emergency kit so you are prepared in the event of a breakdown. This should include a torch, food for energy, water and a blanket. For snow you also need a shovel with you. On longer journeys always let someone know you have set off and tell them your planned route.

Ensure your mobile is charged up, so you can make a call in an emergency .

Do a proper winter check of your vehicle.

Once you're on the move:

Be aware of condition changes, for example:

  1. Under and on top of bridges
  2. On exposed hillsides
  3. In shaded valleys
  4. As weather worsens
  5. Temperature drops, especially as evening approaches

Start gently from stationary, avoiding high revs. If you get yourself into a skid the main thing to remember is to take your foot off the pedals and steer.

Only use the brakes if you cannot steer out of trouble.

It's better to think ahead as you drive to keep moving, even if it is only at walking pace.

Plan your winter driving around busier roads as they are more likely to have been gritted.

On motorways stay in the clearest lane where possible, away from slush and ice. Keep within the clear tyre tracks if you can.

Bends are a particular problem in winter driving conditions - slow down before you get to the bend, so that by the time you turn the steering wheel you have already lost enough speed.

On a downhill slope get your speed low before you start the descent, and do not let it build up - it is much easier to keep it low than to try and slow down once things get slippery.

For 4x4 drivers

Some of the following guidance is applicable to all vehicle types but if you are lucky enough to have a 4x4 vehicle or, indeed, you are using one explicitly for work purposes during adverse winter weather conditions then these tips are for you.

Knowing how the 4x4 system works on your vehicle is essential. Being able to ensure the best traction in winter conditions can make the difference between a safe journey and a failed one.

  • Always have access to the vehicle manual - we can't all remember everything about our vehicle, but being able to find details like tyre pressures, jump lead connection points and the technicalities of the 4x4 system is a must.
  • Make sure that your vehicle has been prepped for winter - winter tyres should be fitted, anti-freeze levels should be checked in coolant and unreliable batteries should be replaced in anticipation for the conditions.
  • Check tyre pressures - low pressures can lead to blow-outs, high pressure can lead to loss of grip
  • Check tyre tread depth - in extreme conditions, less than 3mm of tread can dramatically reduce your grip whilst steering and braking
  • De-ice all windows, and demist them to give you the best chance of seeing problems in bad visibility
  • Check warning lights on ignition - many modern vehicles require the computer systems to function safely - without these, handling can be dangerously compromised. This also helps you to find out whether an unfamiliar vehicle has ABS or Traction Control or ESP, helping you to take control of how you drive the vehicle in different conditions
  • Check lighting systems - head and tail lights, brakes, indicators and hazards, reversing and fog lights

The vehicle is the responsibility of the driver, and understanding the vehicle, its capabilities, limitations, and condition is essential for safe driving in extreme conditions.

If there is any doubt about legality or safety - do not drive it.

Advice, information and training are always available if required - if you feel that you don't fully understand the vehicle you are using, or don't feel confident in your skills in any situation - ask - don't put yourself in a situation that makes you feel nervous.

Remember that even 4x4 systems have their limitations. Larger and heavier vehicles are less stable than small, low and light vehicles. Use their capabilities cautiously, but understand the inherent dangers:

  • Engage 4 wheel drive as soon as you anticipate grip being lost. If your vehicle can be switched from 2 to 4 wheel drive, find out how to do this while driving, and engage 4wd prior to problems to ensure the best control in slippery conditions.
  • 4 wheel drive does not improve braking. If your ABS (anti-lock braking system) is activating, then grip is being lost - reduce your speed and brake well in advance of hazards and bends
  • Disengage 4 wheel drive when good grip is regained. Well gritted and clear roads, without ice, will give good grip (ABS will engage much later when braking). In these situations, disengaging the 4 wheel drive system, or unlocking the central differential lock (if this is a driver option - many modern crossover 4x4s will do this for you - know how your vehicle works), will reduce the danger of damaging the transmission system. If you don't understand how your 4x4 system works - ask, read the vehicle manual, and request training
  • Always ensure that you can stop within the distance you can see to be clear. If there's a chance that there could be a hazard around a corner, or on the approach to a junction, ensure that you can stop if you need to. Remember that on narrow roads, where it is difficult or impossible for vehicles to pass, both you, and the oncoming vehicle, will need to stop in half the distance you can see to be clear
  • Only change speed in a straight line. Braking in a straight line, will give you much more control of the vehicle. However, many drivers forget that in snow and ice conditions acceleration can lead to loss of grip (wheelspin) - in these situations, having the vehicle in a straight line will allow you to ease off the throttle to reduce wheelspin, and will minimise the likelihood of losing steering and positional control of the vehicle.
  • Reduce speed prior to hazards, junctions and bends. Braking on bends, or while steering is a sure way of ending up in a spin, or in a drift, which could put you in danger from coming off the road, or put you in the path of other vehicles.
  • Leave acceleration until past hazards, junctions and bends. Speeding up while steering can lead to spins (especially in rear wheel drive vehicles, like pick-ups and other part-time 4x4s), or drifting wide (especially in front wheel drive vehicles, but also in vehicles operating in 4 wheel drive mode).

For more details on specialist driver training courses, contact Automotional.

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