How to drive in snow and icy weather

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Use to prevent engines freezing

Keep them clear of snow

Drains quicker so make sure it is topped up

Heat your key with a lighter to melt frozen locks

Deeper tread recommended

Clear all the windows, not just the windscreen

Clear snow or it could fall across the windscreen

Leave them in the down position

Driving in severe winter weather poses many challenges. Cars can get stuck in snowy conditions even on familiar roads, forcing the driver and passengers to spend the night on the roadside.

Here is some advice on how to prepare your car for winter driving if you have to make a journey and what to do should you be caught out in bad weather.

Before you leave

Tyres: If possible, considering buying winter tyres, which are designed to grip the road better in icy, wet and snowy conditions. If this is not an option, ensure your standard tyres are inflated correctly and that you have a minimum of 3mm of tread on your tyres to cope with wet and slippery conditions.

Battery: In winter, the battery will run down quicker than in warmer weather. Make sure you do a regular long journey to top it up or trickle-charge the battery.

Emergency snow kit

  • Cat litter or sand
  • Snow shovel or spade
  • Ice scraper
  • Warm clothes and footwear
  • Snacks and water
  • Torch
  • Mobile phone
  • Blanket or sleeping bag
  • Jump leads
  • High visibility jacket
  • First aid kit

Engine: Modern engines are more robust than older ones. All the same, depress the clutch when starting as this will reduce drag on the engine when starting, and preserve the battery.

Screenwash: Keep this topped up and use a proper additive at the right concentration to prevent it freezing.

Fuel: Keep your tank topped up - that way if you are caught out, you'll have enough fuel to make it home or run the engine to keep warm. However, it's essential to keep snow from blocking the exhaust as noxious fumes can leak into the vehicle.

Windows: Clear all snow and ice from the windscreen and the roof of the car before driving off. Do not use water to de-ice windscreens. Hot water can crack the glass, and the water will only freeze again on the screen or on the ground where you are standing.

Locks: A squirt of WD-40 will prevent your door locks freezing up. If they do, heat your key with a lighter to melt the ice.

Warm clothing: Your car may be warm on the inside but if you have to step outside, you could be in trouble if you have not got any warm clothing with you.

Always pack the following: warm coat, hat, gloves, sturdy boots, a blanket to keep you warm if you get stuck. Take some food, chocolate, biscuits, water and a hot drink if you can. Always carry a fully charged mobile, and some old bits of carpet, or cat litter, to put under the tyres when stuck and a shovel to clear snow.

Driving in snow and ice

This is what the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) recommends.

When driving in snow, get your speed right - not too fast so that you risk losing control, but not so slow that you risk losing momentum when you need it - and brake, steer and accelerate as smoothly as possible.

Start gently in second gear, avoiding high revs. Stay in a higher gear for better control.

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

Stopping distances - a combination of the time it takes you to react, brake and then stop - increase considerably in snow and ice, so you need to adjust the distance at which you follow other vehicles accordingly.

Drive so that you do not rely on your brakes to be able to stop - on an icy surface they simply may not do that for you!

Stopping distances comparison graphic

If your vehicle has ABS in very slippery conditions it will not give you the same control it would in others. Do not rely on it.

Plan your journey around busier roads as they are more likely to have been gritted. Avoid using shortcuts on minor roads - they are less likely to be cleared or treated with salt, especially country lanes.

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

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 to slow down once things get slippery.

In falling snow, use dipped headlights or foglights to make yourself visible to others (especially pedestrians) - but as conditions improve, make sure your foglights are only on if necessary as they can dazzle other drivers

If you are following another vehicle at night, using their lights to see ahead can cause you to drive dangerously close - keep well back from other traffic.

What to do if you get stuck in the snow

If you are stuck, the IAM recommends that you turn your wheels from side to side to push the snow out of the way.

Do not try to keep moving if the wheels spin - it will only dig you in deeper.

Use a shovel to clear snow out of the way of the wheels and pour cat litter, sand or gravel in front of the wheels to help get traction.

Shift from forward to reverse and back again. Give a light touch on the accelerator until the vehicle gets going.

While it can be dangerous to spend hours in a cold car miles from anywhere, if all else fails, there are ways to avoid the worst effects.

How drivers can prepare for the cold weather

First of all, make sure you have packed your emergency snow kit. This should include warm clothing, some food, water and a mobile phone.

If you are trapped in your car, you can stay warm by running the engine. However, it is vital that the exhaust pipe is not blocked by snow. If the engine fumes cannot escape, you could be overwhelmed by carbon monoxide gas, which is highly toxic.

If there is any risk the fumes can come into the car, do not run the engine. Even if it is safe, do not run the engine for more than 10 or 15 minutes in each hour.

Stay in or close to your car. In heavy snow it is easy to get disorientated and lost or separated from your vehicle. If necessary, you can always hang a piece of brightly coloured cloth on your car to let others know you are there.

Tips from our audience

During the UK's big freeze in 2010 we asked our audience for tips on how to stay safe and keep moving on the roads.

Here are some of the recommendations:

  • Cover your windscreen with an old bed sheet or piece of cardboard at night to stop it icing up.
  • If you are stranded in the snow and the exhaust pipe is covered, it can be dangerous to run the engine. Take a candle and matches so you can stay warm in the car.
  • Clear snow from the roof of the car to stop it sliding down and blocking, or even cracking the windscreen.
  • Make sure tyres are the correct pressure and double the legal minimum tread.

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