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Winter driving guide: minimising the risk of accidents in difficult weather

Driving in poor weather and freezing temperatures can be just as daunting for experienced drivers as it is for recent passers.

However, if this is your first winter on the road, it will probably be the first time you get experience of what it is like to travel in difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions.

Staying safe through the winter months isn’t just about making sure your car is up to the job and in tip top condition, but also thinking about how your own actions can minimise the risk of accidents.

Here are our 10 top tips for driving in more challenging wintry conditions and making it safely to your destination.

Take your time

When the weather is wintry, it’s just not worth rushing around and risking an accident. Driving slowly and smoothly will mean you are better equipped to deal with any hazards, and will also take less of a toll on your car.

Taking your time, even if it means journeys take longer, is also about not putting pressure on other road users. When conditions are difficult, getting too close to a vehicle which is being driven cautiously is not helpful to anyone, could cause an accident, and is unlikely to get you anywhere more quickly anyway.

Remember your stopping distances

Giving other road users space is especially important when considering stopping distances.

In bad weather, the distance it takes to stop a car can be affected in various ways. If visibility is poor then it can take longer to spot a hazard in the first place, and then wet or slippery roads can cause braking distances to increase.

In wet weather, stopping distances will be at least double those on dry roads because your tyres have less grip. In ice and snow, it can be as much as 10 times greater.

You should also be prepared for conditions to change quite drastically, even over fairly short distances.

Stopping distances are also affected by you as the driver; how alert you are and how you respond to situations, as well as the condition of your car. Our guide to keeping your car in the right condition for winter can help you think about whether it is up to the job.

Keep your car clear of snow

Before you set off you must be able to see clearly, not just through a peephole in a frosty windscreen but out of all the windows and mirrors so you have maximum visibility of what is happening around you.

Don’t forget the roof – a build-up of snow can fall forwards onto the windscreen as you are driving, which can temporarily block your view, or fall into the path of other road users. Also make sure your registration plates and lights are clear.

It can be painful, but getting ready 10 minutes earlier than normal gives you time to properly prepare the car and not risk rushing onto the road before you’ve made it safe to drive.

Driving safely in rain and sleet

Wet weather and spray on the road can make it harder to see, and be seen by, other vehicles, so take it easy. When it’s dark it’s also harder to spot when patches of road have flooded, and you shouldn’t drive through flood water if you’re not sure how deep it is.

If a build-up of water between the road and tyres causes you to lose grip, ease off the accelerator and allow the car to slow down gradually.

Don’t get blown away

High-sided vehicles are most likely to be affected by strong winds, but they can also affect smaller vehicles, particularly on exposed stretches of road, and blow you off course.

If you’re driving in strong winds, make sure you keep your hands firmly on the steering wheel, especially if you can feel the steering go light and you’re having to correct your direction a lot – and slow down.

Driving through fog

Driving in fog can be tricky and you need to be aware of your own car – making sure you have the appropriate lights on – and other road users, keeping a safe distance. Check your mirrors before slowing down, and use your brakes so that cars behind you can see that you are slowing down.

If you see warning signs for fog on the road, but it appears clear, you could find you are about to enter drifting fog, or a bank of fog, so you should still be prepared. Remember to switch off fog lights as soon as visibility improves.

Here comes the sun

Anyone who’s experienced driving with the glare of a low winter sun on the windscreen knows it can be one of the worst conditions to drive in, and you can feel like you’re being blinded.

Keep your speed down and use your sun visor; it’s also a good reason to keep sunglasses in the car all year round. You should also keep your distance from the vehicle in front; they will be experiencing the same difficulties as you and may brake suddenly.

The glare of the sun can highlight all of the salt and dirt from the road on your windscreen, which makes visibility even worse, so make sure your screenwash tank is topped up.

Remember if the sun is behind you, it is affecting cars that are coming towards you, so just be extra vigilant about what they are doing as well.

Let the gears help you in ice and snow

You should drive extremely carefully when the road is covered, and avoid sudden actions. It’s a good idea to drive slowly in as high a gear as possible; if you drive an automatic you might have a winter mode which will do the same (check your handbook).

If you’re struggling to get the car to move when starting it, setting off in second gear with careful clutch control can help avoid wheel spin.

Beware the festive tipple

With all the work parties, catch ups with friends, and the endless excuses for a drink through to New Year, this really is the season to be jolly, but it should never be at the expense of yours and other people’s safety.  

Staying within the legal alcohol limit isn’t just about avoiding driving home from a night out, but also knowing if you are fit to drive the morning after. Whether it’s a designated driver sticking to the soft drinks or booking a taxi, it’s just never worth it to risk driving yourself.

Do you need to go?

Even if you’ve factored in all the ways you can make a trip in wintry conditions as safe as possible, at the end of the day you have to ask yourself if a journey is really worth it.

If you’re going home or to family and friends for Christmas, then it could feel like a necessity, but it might be worth looking at travelling at a different time or on a different day, particularly if there are weather warnings or you know your route is full of problems.

It’s also worth thinking about when the roads are likely to be busiest and if you can plan to avoid joining the mayhem. Everybody would much rather you arrive safely, even if a bit late, than not at all!

Next steps

If you passed your test in the spring or later, you might never have driven in snow or ice, or even experienced the longer hours of darkness on the roads. If you’re not feeling 100% confident, you may like to consider coming back to us for a Pass Plus course or advanced driver training lessons.

We’ve also written a winter driving guide about making sure your car is in good nick to keep you safe through difficult conditions.