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Driving in a Winter Wonderland

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat… and if you just happen to possess extremities, we think you’ll agree, it’s sodding freezing.

If you’ll be driving during the festive period, whether that’s to some glorious Highland lodge, or just slogging down to your other half’s Welsh family, chances are you’ll be stuck with that niggling doubt all motorists have around the chilly months; the roads might ice up, leaving us to hole up at home and end up having Heinz tomato soup as Christmas dinner.

Of course if the weather is bad, the advice is to stay put as no amount of Christmas cheer is worth the risk of starting a treacherous journey, but that doesn’t mean conditions can’t suddenly change when you’re crossing counties.

Get Your Mechanics in Order: Check your tyres and ensure your car is prepared for long journeys

Firstly, take the time to check all those things we should be checking regularly – even if you’re religious about ensuring your motor is in tip-top condition, it doesn’t hurt to double check before setting off. Tyres should be suitably inflated (check your owner’s manual for vehicle specific figures) and you should keep outside temperature in mind when adjusting pressure – checking in to a toasty garage won’t optimise your tyres for cold road conditions. You should also ensure you have a minimum of 3mm tread, ideal for driving in slippery conditions.

A good screenwash with antifreeze should be topped right up and try not to drive on a half-full fuel tank, you’ll need adequate fuel in case you get stuck.

Tailor Your Driving: Thinking ahead and using your gears effectively

In the UK, snow is an odd phenomenon; we’ll have a brutal winter and then see not a snowflake for 5 years. This means that many young or new drivers have probably never experienced icy road conditions, and even if you’ve recently studied technique in the Highway Code, feeling your tyres slide over ice is a whole different thing to learning what to do in theory.

Firstly don’t rely on any ABS or weather orientated bells and whistles and assume you can leave the hard work to the engineering, driving in icy conditions is all about using your nous – your chance to show what a first-class driver you really are!

  • Start in as higher gear as possible, setting off in second if possible.
  • Accelerate, steer and brake gently, driving slowly enough for the conditions but not so slowly that you end up a sitting duck!
  • Brake before corners while driving on the straight, corners should be gently manoeuvred using pre-emptive driving. The same principle applies to steeper descents.
  • It goes without saying, in icy conditions, throw the two second rule out of the window, work at something more like the 20 second rule.
  • Try to tailor your journey so you’ll be sticking to busier roads that are likely to have been gritted. Similarly, be aware of any slushy build ups or driving under tree canopies and bridges where ice takes longer to melt.
  • Consider utilising winter tyres or storage-friendly snow socks.
  • If you skid gently, come off the accelerator and only use the brake if you can’t correct the skid with steering.

What If You Get Stuck?

Preparing an emergency pack is good practice throughout the year; a ‘chucked-in-the-boot’ water bottle and first aid kit can become vital if you break down or have an accident. In winter, the emergency kit should extend to warm clothing, high-energy food such as biscuits and chocolate, a shovel, fully charged mobile phone complete with breakdown service numbers, water, a torch and ideally a flask of something hot to drink. Don’t think of this as preparing for the great migration – it’s more of a simple kit you can stow in the boot!

If it is safe you’ll probably want to wait in the car with the engine running, but ensure that the exhaust pipe is clear of snow and obstructions otherwise your car could quickly fill with fumes. If you choose to wait in your vehicle then try not to keep the engine running constantly – 15 minutes in one hour is a maximum guide.

Don’t allow your party to wander too far from your car if you do get stuck, on high and rural roads snow and fog can quickly cloud your vision. It’s also a good idea to invest in some custom number plates warning people you have broken down – they are slim enough to be kept in the boot all year round, reflective and can be wedged on your windscreen wipers to alert other drivers. We think ‘help’, ‘hazard’ or ‘caution’ would be good choices for a breakdown SOS.

Feeling confident? If the idea of driving in icy conditions fills you with dread then don’t risk it; after all the smart man stays at home while the wally slides around, knocks into a parked car and then ends up abandoning his car!

For more information and tips and tricks for all weather driving, check out the AA and RAC pages on driving in adverse conditions. Talking of Christmas driving preparation, there’s still 20% off all of our custom and replacement number plates!