Drive safe as winter bites

Winter has set in. The days are getting shorter, the temperatures are dropping and the weather is, once again, doing its bit for travel chaos – particularly on the roads.

man and child clearing car of snow

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Winterising your car

Although it sounds like something that could take hours of work and a few sharp intakes of breath from a mechanic, ‘winterising’ your car only actually involves a few simple checks you can carry out yourself. Here’s what to do:

Lights: Check that your headlights, tail lights, brake lights, reverse lights, indicators and hazard warning lights are all working correctly and that there is no dirt on the lens that could reduce their effectiveness.

Windscreen: Look for any chips in the windscreen as a sudden drop in temperature can turn even the smallest chip into a large crack. Even if it doesn’t, a chip alone can affect your visibility and actually structurally weaken your car – which could prove disastrous if you were involved in an accident – so make repairing it a priority.

If you have fully comprehensive insurance your insurer is likely to have links with a windscreen repair specialist that will fix the chip free of charge and without affecting your no-claims discount. This pre-emptive measure is cheaper than repairing the entire windscreen.

While you’re checking your windscreen, make sure that it is properly cleaned on the inside as an accumulation of dirt can reduce visibility and increase dazzle from headlights or low winter sun.

Wipers: Run the front and rear windscreen wipers, including water jets, to make sure that they’re working correctly. If they smear the screen or the rubber is split, then replace them as soon as possible as damaged wipers can reduce visibility even further.

And although wiper blades can last up to two years, it’s worth replacing them every year, especially if you do a lot of driving and they are frequently used.

De-misters: The combination of the cold outside air and the warmer air inside the car can make your windscreen fog up quickly and significantly reduce visibility. So make sure that both your front and rear de-misters are working and effectively clear your screen.

Battery: Your car battery never works harder than it does during the winter and if it’s not in perfect working order then it can quickly run itself flat, so you should check to make sure that it is before you venture out.

Firstly, check that all connections to the battery are clean and tight and, if you have a newer car battery, then check that condition indicator is green and, if not, get a replacement.

If your car battery does not have a condition indicator then you can run a quick test; simply turn on the headlights and start the engine, if the lights go brighter when the engine fires up then your battery is not at full capacity and you should get it tested at a garage and replace if necessary.

Fluids: While you’re under the bonnet, you should also check the fluid level in your screen wash reservoir and radiator expansion tank. Your screen wash reservoir should be topped up to the maximum level with water and a sufficient level of anti-freeze, while the water in the radiator should be above the minimum and look clean and bright.

Tyres: Arguably the most important check to carry out as if your tyres aren’t up to scratch then you could easily lose control of your car if it loses grip on a cold road. So make sure that the tread is at least 1.6mm all around, the minimum depth required by law. An easy way to check this is to place a £2 coin in the tread and if any gold is visible on the coin then the tyre will need replacing.

However, tyre grip is reduced once the tread drops below 3mm so it’s always a good idea to change them before they reach the legal limit. If you are changing your tyres then it may be worth putting winter tyres on as these significantly improve road grip and shorten stopping distances when the temperature drops below 7°c.

Alternatively, tyre covers are a cheaper option, but should only be used on snow or ice covered roads as they quickly wear down under normal conditions.

Driving in snow and ice

Your car is now all set to tackle the winter conditions but are your driving skills?

Driving in snow and ice requires a lot more caution and awareness as the slippery conditions can make it easy to lose control of your car.

So if you do feel like your car is losing its grip on the road, then gently slow down and try to keep your distance from any other vehicles, whether moving or stationary. The key thing to remember is to keep calm and make sure that any accelerating, braking and steering are done gently.

If you do skid, then ignore your instinct to slam on the brakes and steer your way out of trouble as you will most likely lose control and crash. Instead, you should keep your foot away from the brake and instead press down on the clutch to disengage the engine while making sure you keep the steering wheel straight. You should then feel your car regain traction with the road at which point you can gently bring up the clutch and continue driving.

If you are pulling away from a stationary position you should put the car into second, even maybe third gear, as this will give you greater control over your car and reduce wheel spinning.

Driving through flood water

Ideally, you should avoid driving through water; even if your car has a high clearance you may come unstuck, so make sure you know how deep the water is by checking it against landmarks or watching how other vehicles cope and you shouldn’t really try to drive through water that is more than six inches deep.

If you must drive through water then take it slow, maintain high revs and try to keep the exhaust clear - if you try to accelerate through it quickly you could flood your engine with water and ruin it.

Driving in low winter sun

Driving in low winter sun can be particularly hazardous as it can reduce visibility to almost zero.

Unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done about this but you can minimize its glare by making sure that your windows are clean, both outside and in – dust and grime on the inside of windscreens really intensifies dazzle.

You should also keep a good pair of sunglasses with you and remember to use the car’s sun visor to reduce glare.

If the sun is low and visibility is poor then adjust your speed accordingly, be aware of the vehicles around you and, if you are dazzled, try not to slam on the brakes as this could cause the driver behind to run into the back of you.

Added winter precautions

Even if your car is all set for the worst that the winter can throw at it, there’s still no guarantee that it won’t break down or that you might get caught in a snow drift, as has happened to motorists up and down the country over the past few winters.

So it also makes sense to pack a few essentials into the boot of your car, just in case the worst should happen.

As a minimum, you should have; a spare tyre and tool kit, jump leads, an ice scraper, a torch and a first aid kit, as well as spare windscreen wipers and washer fluid.

And, in case you get stranded, you should also pack; a blanket, an extra set of warm clothes and boots, an in-car mobile phone charger, a little non-perishable food and water, a small shovel, tyre chains or socks, some sand, grit or other abrasive material that can be thrown down to provide additional traction if stuck in snow.

If you do get stranded in the snow then, unless you know exactly where you are and know where to get help, you should stay with your car and call your breakdown recovery service and, if there has been an accident, the police.

You should also call a close family member or friend to let them know you’re stranded, but try not to ask them for help as they may become stranded themselves.

Then stay in your car, as long as it’s safe to do so, and keep yourself warm using the extra clothes and blanket you have packed. If you have enough fuel, then keep the car running and open one of the windows a touch to cut down on condensation, and open and close the door once every five minutes or so to stop it freezing shut from the outside.

One of the best ways to keep out of trouble is to not drive at all so, if conditions are poor, make sure that you only drive when absolutely necessary.

If you do have to drive then listen to regular traffic updates, plan your journey carefully and try to stick to busier roads as they are more likely to have been gritted and the higher volume of traffic tends to keep these routes clear.

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