Tips for driving on snow or ice: Take care that you’re not slip-sliding away

Time to dust off the winter driving tips as the big freeze approaches

Try and be as smooth as you possibly can with throttle, brakes and steering as any movement that destabilises the car will be amplified on a slippery surface.

Try and be as smooth as you possibly can with throttle, brakes and steering as any movement that destabilises the car will be amplified on a slippery surface.

 

With the leaden skies that speak of snow and ice approaching, it’s time to remember the winter driving tips that we all learned in 2010 and promptly forgot in the milder, wetter winters since. Don’t panic if you have a rear-wheel drive BMW and don’t be too smug if you have a 4x4 SUV, because what you actually mostly need is patience and a light dusting of skill.

There’s an expression that the best drivers need the feet of a ballet dancer and the hands of a surgeon. Try to apply the same principles. Think smooth and steady in your throttle and the same in your steering.

Prep your car

Prepping your vehicle is the most important thing. If you don’t have winter or all-season tyres fitted, then at least make sure that your normal tyres are in good nick, with plenty of tread depth and the correct pressures inside. Don’t be tempted to let down your tyres a little in search of greater grip – you might find more initial traction but your braking and steering control will be impaired.

Make sure your lights are all working properly, that you’ve got plenty of screen wash (and a spare bottle of it stashed in the boot, perhaps) and a fresh set of wiper blades wouldn’t go amiss – snow and freezing temperatures make the blades scrape across the windscreen, causing them to wear out more quickly. Carry an ice scraper and maybe a can of de-icer in your boot.

It’s also a good idea to make sure that you have some warm clothes or a blanket stashed in the boot, along with some stout shoes or wellingtons, a few bars of chocolate and bottles of water. A good idea too, given their short power lives, is to bring along a spare external battery for your phone, just in case.

Plan your journey

Obviously the best solution to roads blocked with snow and abandoned cars is just to stay home with a nice cup of tea and Pointless Celebrities, but if that’s not an option, try to plan your journey to avoid peak traffic times (as traffic is going to be much worse when conditions are bad) and try to have a backup route in mind in case the road you were going to take becomes impassable. Try to avoid, as much as you can, high mountain or hill roads, or very minor country roads. As much as possible, stick to main routes that have been salted and gritted.

Driving on fresh snow isn’t too hard actually, but the problems come as the snow compacts and hardens and the ice starts to form. The basic advice is simply to drive more slowly, much more slowly, than usual and to look much further up the road in search of obstacles or reasons to stop, as your braking distance is going to be much longer.

Smooth is the secret 

Try and be as smooth as you possibly can with throttle, brakes and steering as any movement that destabilises the car will be amplified on a slippery surface. Braking hard with the wheels turned is a real no-no as there’s just not enough grip. Just stick to going slow enough that hard braking isn’t needed.

If you get stuck, don’t floor the throttle and assume that the car’s electronics will sort everything out. You’ll just dig a bigger hole for yourself. Instead, go gently. Try backing up a little, if possible, and taking another gentle run. If that doesn’t work, try gently rocking the car forwards and backwards on the throttle, alternating between first and reverse gears. If you’re really stuck and haven’t brought a shovel or “snow socks” for the tyres, then stuffing your floor mats under the wheels might get you the traction you need. Just don’t forget to pick them up afterwards.

Incidentally, if you are fitting snow socks, remember that they’re for low speeds only and make sure you know whether your car is front or rear wheel drive before fitting.

Rear wheel myths

Rear-wheel drive cars, by the way, aren’t actually any worse on snow and ice than front-wheel drive – they just require a little more care and an understanding of how the physics of driven wheels work. A front-drive or four-wheel drive car will be easier, but those who own a BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar or Lexus shouldn’t panic. Just go slowly and carefully and you’ll be fine.

Don’t get over confident if you do happen to have a four-wheel drive vehicle. Four-wheel drive helps to find traction on slippery surfaces to get you going and keep you going, but remember that you’ve still got to be able to brake and steer, and a 4x4 is no better at those on snow and ice than any other car. Keep the speed down, no matter how big and chunky your tyres are.

Higher gears

Whatever your car, try to use a slightly higher gear than you normally would as maintaining low revs will help to prevent the onset of wheelspin, causing a loss of traction. That can be slightly tricky with diesel engines as they tend to “chug” at low speeds in higher gears, but as much as you can, go one higher. Those with an automatic gearbox should switch the gearbox to “winter” mode (if such an option is fitted) and anyone with an electronically variable vehicle setting should switch to winter or eco modes to turn down and smooth out the throttle response. If your automatic car has none of those settings, then simply use the manual shifting option to hold as high a gear as possible for as long as possible.

Sliding

If you start to slide, don’t panic. Most slides can be corrected with a simple turn of the steering wheel in the direction of the slide, or what’s known as “opposite lock”. As above, try and do this as smoothly as possible, and be prepared for the car to over-react and start sliding back the other way, what’s called a “fishtail”. Again, the slower you’re travelling and the gentler your inputs of steering, throttle and brake, the better. Don’t brake hard if you start to slide – wait until you feel the car correcting its line and then gently slow down, using engine braking as much as possible.

If you’ve got the heater turned up full to keep the screens clear, just be aware that too much cabin heat can make you feel drowsy, so be prepared to crack open a window occasionally to help you stay sharp. Of course, if you’re getting really tired, just stop and have a break.

Don’t be tempted to fit snow chains – they’re illegal under the Road Traffic Act and make sure you clear any standing snow off your car before you set off. Snow left on your roof will fall off, potentially blinding those behind you while snow on your own bonnet will just slide back, potentially blinding you. It only take five minutes to clear a car, and you can do it with good gloves, and perhaps a soft brush for the roof.

If you get stuck, don’t try and leave the car and walk for help – you’re more likely to fall down on a slippery surface and hurt yourself. Stay with the car, call for help and break out the chocolate.