Driving Home for Christmas

Date: 25 Nov 2015

Whether you are driving through a busy city or sparsely populated areas, there are heightened risks to be aware of in winter. You never know what may happen, so it’s important to be prepared for anything.

Keep your distance

You’ve heard it a thousand times but in bad conditions always increase your following distance, make smooth down shifts and take extra caution when travelling on slip roads, bridges and flyovers. You have control over your own vehicle, but the driver next to you may not have control of theirs. Your best bet is to stay as far away from other vehicles as possible. If something does go wrong, increase your chances of surviving the incident by not panicking and remembering everything you have learnt about safe driving.

Practise proper vehicle maintenance

In unfavourable conditions, it is especially important to inspect your vehicle before you get on the road. First, remember that cold weather lowers battery power, so be sure yours is in good shape before the cold conditions take over. Ensure that there is proper winter coolant (antifreeze) in your radiator. Check to make sure that the heater, demister and wiper blades are all in proper working order. Most importantly, check your tyres. Winter roads already provide very little traction, so good tread depth is critical. Before beginning your journey, ensure you have plenty of fuel in the tank, clear the roof, windows and all mirrors of snow and ice and check your lights are clear and dirt free.

Be prepared with equipment and supplies

Just as important as vehicle maintenance is having the right gear to get you through the most severe winter conditions. Always carry a winter driving kit with you – you never know when one of these items could save your life.

Recommended items to stock in your kit include:

  • a torch and batteries
  • blankets
  • extra clothing such as: warm layers, hi-vis, gloves, shoes, socks and rain gear
  • non-perishable food and water
  • a first aid kit
  • a bag of sand or salt
  • extra washer fluid
  • a windscreen scraper and brush
  • jump leads
  • a tow rope
  • mobile phone and charger

Know the road conditions

Two things: have a good source for weather reports and a good thermometer. Many cars now have an external temperature display but if your vehicle is not equipped with either of these things then seriously consider the investment. Both are crucial to determining the safest routes and knowing what kinds of road conditions you are dealing with. Plan your journey in advance using traffic information; always have a contingency plan in case your first route is closed. Use main roads where possible – a map of gritted routes can be found on local websites. If you are unable to tell whether the road is icy or not and the temperature is hovering around freezing, watch other vehicles to gauge the conditions. Sliding vehicles, lack of spray from tyres and ice build-up on other vehicles are good indications the road is frozen.

React appropriately when things go wrong

Whether it is your fault or not, things can – and will – go wrong when driving in dangerous winter conditions. The key is to respond quickly and smartly when they happen. Skidding is more likely to occur when there is ice, snow or water on the road. However, it is important to remember that most skidding is a result of bad driving. A car will only skid if it is being driven at an inappropriate speed or if provoked to do so by aggressive steering, braking or acceleration. To prevent skidding you should never ask your car to do more than it can do with the grip available.

As a result, in poor weather conditions you should:

  • Slow down.
  • Increase your stopping distance, so if the vehicle in front stops unexpectedly you have enough space to brake to a stop without skidding.
  • Take extra care when approaching a bend.
  • Be gentle and progressive when steering, accelerating and braking.
The bottom line in winter driving is to think ahead about safety, be prepared and know your own limitations. Use common sense – if you feel uncomfortable or unsafe driving in the given conditions, do not drive. It’s better to be safe than sorry; that is, better you arrive late than not arrive at all, so use your best judgement. Check traffic information with the Highways Agency and local and national weather information channels via Met office website, radio or television.