No matter how experienced you are behind the wheel, weather conditions during the winter months can make driving very challenging. Snow, ice, rain, and flooding all require preparation, and it’s important to ensure your car is ready for the different road conditions so that you can avoid breakdowns.
This guide aims to help you feel safe on the road, from sharing some vital car maintenance tips to helping you learn how to deal with icy roads, snow, fog, heavy rain and skidding. Keep reading to feel prepared for most winter weather eventualities while driving.
Car maintenance checklist
- Check your car’s fluid levels: When your car is parked on level ground, the ignition is switched off and the engine is cold, check your coolant, oil and screenwash levels, and top up if necessary.
- Ensure your tyres are safe: Check that all four tyres are correctly inflated. If in doubt, check your owner’s handbook for correct tyre pressures. Also, inspect them for damage and look at the tread depth. Legally, the tread depth must be at least 1.6mm, but for peace of mind, 3mm is recommended.
- Check your car’s wipers: Good visibility is essential, especially in the winter when you’re dealing with challenging driving conditions. Ensure your front and rear wipers are working properly and cleaning your screen correctly without leaving smears.
- Are your lights working properly? Just as it’s important to be able to see out of your car, it’s also crucial that other vehicles can see you. Check your headlights, side lights, fog lights, and rear lights are all working. If you can’t test them all yourself, ask a friend or family member to help you.
- Make sure your car battery is in good condition: Flat batteries are the biggest cause of breakdowns during the winter because they are under more strain than usual. Make sure you know what the battery charge warning light looks like on your car’s dashboard, so that you can identify any issues before you set off. You can also follow a few simple habits, such as taking your car out for regular drives to keep the battery charged, and double-checking that your car lights are switched off after you get home so that you don’t accidentally leave them on overnight.
- Plan your journey: You should avoid taking to the roads in extreme weather if possible, but if you do need to drive somewhere, research a safe route before heading off. For instance, avoid smaller roads that may be prone to flooding during heavy rain.
- Top up with fuel or charge up: The last thing you want to do is run out of fuel in foul weather, so always ensure you have enough petrol or diesel in your car before heading off. If you drive an electric vehicle (EV), remember to leave home with a full charge. If you have a long journey ahead, make the most of public chargepoints along the way to keep a healthy range.
- Take your time – don’t rush: Don’t leave it until the last minute to set off for your journey when the weather conditions are poor. Set off early to avoid unnecessary stress. Don’t put yourself and other road users in danger because you’re in a rush.
- Winter weather survival kit: If you must make a journey in extreme weather, such as heavy snow, you should keep an emergency survival kit in your car just in case it breaks down. It should include an ice scraper, de-icer spray, a blanket to keep you warm, a torch, a shovel, high visibility jacket and waterproof clothing. Additionally, ensure your mobile phone is fully charged, you have a warning triangle to warn other drivers of your breakdown, and take water and food to keep you going. If you need any medications, it may be worth keeping some spare in your vehicle as well.
Packing a winter weather survival kit is one of the best ways to avoid driving anxiety over the colder months. Read some more top tips to help you stay calm while driving this winter.
Tips for driving in the Rain
Turn your lights on
Switch on your dipped headlights. Visibility is reduced in heavy rain, so you need to make sure that other road users can see you approaching.
Slow down and keep your distance
Drive slowly in wet weather to increase your braking distance. It takes double the time for your car to stop in wet weather compared to when the roads are dry.
Keep a safe distance between you and other cars. Stay at least three seconds behind any vehicle in front of you. Ideally, this should be increased to four seconds in poor weather.
Keep windows clear
Humidity can cause your car windows to steam up on the inside. If your vehicle is fitted with air conditioning, activate it to demist your windows before driving. You can also switch on your heater and turn up the heat gradually, to blow warm air towards your car’s windscreen. Some cars have a demisting feature as part of their climate control system, so if yours does, definitely make use of it.
Avoid cruise control
Cruise control is a great feature for your car, but it shouldn’t be used in wet weather as it increases your chance of sliding. If your car starts aquaplaning when cruise control is engaged, you can’t slow down as quickly because your vehicle is going at a constant speed, making the situation even worse.
Beware of pedestrians and cyclists
Be extra cautious of pedestrians and vulnerable road users such as cyclists, so you’re not caught out by any unexpected movements. For instance, cyclists may swerve to avoid a deep puddle when overtaking. Make sure you give them lots of room and try not to splatter them with even more water.
Watch out for flooding
If the rain is heavy and there’s flooding, beware of large puddles and standing water – they may be deeper than you think. If in doubt, turn back. If your car’s engine cuts out after driving through deep water, don’t attempt to restart it, as catastrophic engine damage may occur. Instead, turn on your hazard warning lights and call for assistance from RAC Motability Assist.
Tips for driving in snow and ice
Maximise your visibility
Whether it’s frost or snow, you should leave time before you set off to clear it from your windscreen, side windows and rear screen using an ice scraper.
A de-icer aerosol can help if the frost is hard, but do not be tempted to use boiling water to melt ice because it will crack or severely weaken your windscreen.
Removing snow from your car’s roof is also advisable, as it can slide down onto your windscreen or into the path of the following traffic.
Stick to the main roads
Avoid smaller roads because main roads are more likely to have been treated with salt and grit. There’s also a greater chance that the snow will have broken up because of a greater traffic volume.
Drive carefully and sensibly
Follow the speed limit, brake gently and approach bends slowly. Brake well in advance of bends to prevent you from locking your wheels, and drive slowly in a low gear when going downhill. Avoid high revs when driving a manual car to prevent skidding and maximise control. Start off in second gear if it’s slippery, as this will also help reduce wheel slip.
Increase your stopping distance
Leave plenty of space between you and the car in front. According to the Highway Code, your braking distance could be ten times higher than on a dry road. In other words, travelling at 70mph on an icy road could take up to 771m to stop your car. That’s the equivalent of half a mile.
Regain control of your car
If your vehicle starts sliding sideways, take your foot off the pedals and steer into the skid (e.g. if you start skidding to the left, you should steer to the left and try to avoid braking). Only use the brake if you can’t steer out of trouble.
If you get stuck, don’t spin the wheels or rev the engine – you’ll only dig your vehicle further in. Use as high a gear as possible and slowly manoeuvre the car forwards and backwards to creep out gently.
Tips for driving in fog
Use the correct lights
Always use dipped headlights in foggy conditions. Switch on your front and rear fog lights if visibility is less than 100 metres to help other motorists see you.
Don’t turn on your rear fog lights any earlier than you need to, because you could end up dazzling drivers behind you. Don’t use full beam because the fog reflects the light back, reducing visibility even further.
Driving tips for foggy conditions
- Maintain a slow, steady pace, keep your distance from other motorists and avoid sudden braking.
- Beware of other road users and pedestrians, who may not be visible until the last few seconds.
- If the visibility is too poor, park somewhere safe until it’s clear enough to continue your journey.
Tips for driving in strong winds
Plan your journey carefully
Avoid exposed roads and try to find a sheltered route without bridges, flyovers and high, flat land.
A lot can go wrong in high winds. A sudden gust can unsettle your car, or there may be fallen trees, branches, and other flying debris. Driving slowly gives you more chances to be aware of your surroundings and spot trouble ahead.
Hold on tight
Make sure you keep a firm hold of the steering wheel at all times because you will need to react swiftly if your vehicle is knocked off course. Be especially cautious when overtaking high-sided vehicles on dual carriageways and motorways.
If possible, don’t tow caravans or trailers in gale-force winds. Even blustery winds can contribute to snaking (when the caravan swings from side-to-side). If the wind picks up, you should slow down, steer a straight course and consider taking a break until the weather improves.
Leave lots of space
Sudden gusts can catch us all out, so leave extra room for cyclists and motorcyclists, who are particularly vulnerable and may veer across the road.
Tips on how to get out of a skid
By following all of the above guidance, you should reduce your risk of getting into a skid whilst driving this winter. However, if you do get into a skid, try not to panic. It’s easier said than done, but it’s important to stay calm and take these steps to get out of it:
During straight-line skids, the entire vehicle drifts to one side. So firstly, lift your foot off the accelerator pedal. Once you sense the tyres have recovered grip and the drifting has stopped, gradually move back to the centre of your lane.
If the drifting carries on, you can lightly tap your brake pedal even when your foot isn’t on the accelerator.
If you get into a sideways skid, only the rear of your vehicle slips to one side, and its nose continues to point straight ahead. This is called “fishtailing”.
The most critical thing to remember is to turn your steering wheel gradually into the fishtail. If you’re skidding towards the right, slowly steer right. If you’re skidding to the left, steer left. Once you begin to feel the car levelling out, gently straighten the steering wheel.
This technique straightens out your vehicle’s rear and keeps it heading in a straight line. The sooner you can catch the fishtail skid, the better, as less correction will be required.
No matter the kind of skid you’re correcting, you should never hit the brakes hard, as this could send your vehicle into a tailspin.