Unpredictable weather and changing road conditions can make driving in winter challenging and even dangerous - car accident claims increase by 25% in November, according to figures from Admiral Insurance.
And that’s if you even make it off the driveway, as your car is 18% less likely to start during the winter months.
But winter driving doesn’t have to be hazardous, and a little preparation can help make sure your car doesn’t pack in as soon as the weather gets worse. Our winter driving tips will explain how to drive safely in winter and also help you prepare your car for the worst of weather.
How to prepare your car for winter
It might feel like winter creeps up on us every year, but the only predictable thing about the British weather is its unpredictability - so it makes sense to prepare your car for colder conditions as soon as summer finishes.
Here’s how to prepare your car for winter:
- Check your tyres - Tyres are essential to a car’s steering and braking. It’s important to make sure they’re in good condition, especially as winter approaches and both handling and stopping become more difficult. Although tyres only need a tread depth of 1.6mm (about the size of the rim on a £2 coin) a 3mm depth is safer in winter. It could also be worth investing in winter tyres.
- Check your fluids - Coolant and washer fluid can both freeze as temperatures drop, so you’ll need to top up both with anti-freeze. Engine coolant should be a 50/50 mix of water and antifreeze and you should make sure your winter washer fluid also contains antifreeze.
- Check your battery - Car batteries usually have a shelf-life of about five years and, if yours is on the way out, a drop in temperature could cause it to fail. This is because cold temperatures reduce the output of a battery. It also has to work harder to keep lights, heaters, and wipers running. Get your local garage to do a battery test and replace it if necessary.
- Check your windscreen - Windscreen chips can get worse in winter. If your screen has any, get them fixed or the windscreen replaced before they impair visibility. And keep your windscreen clean both inside and out - any dust and grease on the inside can increase the glare from the winter sun and reduce visibility.
- Get a winter service - Although nothing can guarantee your car won’t break down in winter, getting a winter service and maintenance check can help prevent problems associated with cold weather.
How to drive in bad weather
Once your car is ready for winter, you need to consider how to drive in bad weather and stay safe in more treacherous conditions.
The main thing to keep in mind is the way you drive - staying smooth and steady is the key to safe winter driving. When the roads are icy or wet don’t set off at speed, and try not to stop too quickly - both could see you end up spinning out of control.
When you need to slow down, use your gears as an engine brake. Move down through the gears until you reach your desired speed as if you’re driving down a steep hill. If you slam on the brakes, the wheels will lock and can send your car into a spin.
It’s easier to pull away in a manual car if you let the clutch up gently. And to prevent wheel spin, make sure you keep engine revs low by changing up the gears early, and down as late as possible.
Automatics and 4x4s usually have a special mode for driving in the snow – use it. And if you use sport mode, make sure that’s turned off.
If you get stuck in the snow, don’t rev your engine, you’ll spin your wheels and dig yourself in deeper. Instead, try rocking your car backwards and forwards gently, to ease yourself out of the rut and onto a place where your tyres can grip.
How to drive in heavy rain
When you’re on UK roads, it’s not unusual to find yourself driving in the rain. Here’s how to stay safe when roads are wet:
- Watch your speed and distance with other vehicles - Your braking distance will be twice as long in wet weather.
- Be careful of the spray on the road – This will make it harder to see and you’ll need your wipers to be in good condition to deal with it.
- Dipped headlights are safer to use – Make sure your car is visible in the rain by using dipped headlights, even during the daytime. Remember to put your fog lamps only when visibility is below 100m. It can be very tempting to use them on dark mornings and evenings, but that’ll dazzle other drivers, especially when there’s water on the road. If you’re unsure about needing your fog lights, use this simple check – can you see the rear lights of the car in front of you? If you can see them, you probably don’t need your fog lights on. If you can’t, put them on.
- Watch out for surface water - Always take care when driving on wet roads and adjust your speed accordingly. Driving through deep water may cause damage to your car, and speeding through even a thin layer of water can cause your car to lose grip on the road and see you to lose control. This is known as aquaplaning. If this happens, don’t brake, just ease off the accelerator and keep your hands on the steering wheel until your speed naturally decreases or you clear the water.
How to drive in snow and ice
The UK transport system can creak under the pressure of even the lightest snowfall. And driving conditions can be even more dangerous if there’s ice on the road, as this can be more difficult to spot than snow or rain. Here’s how to drive safely in snow and ice:
- Accelerate gently to avoid your wheels spinning - When pulling away from a stationary start, put your car in second gear and rev gently to get going.
- Watch your speed and distance - Similar to driving in rain, stopping distances will be significantly more - up to ten times greater - so take this into consideration and avoid high speeds.
- Watch out for glare – Low winter sun and snow can reduce visibility to almost zero, so keep your windscreen clean and wear sunglasses to help reduce glare from the road.
- Beware of skidding - Even the most cautious drivers can lose grip on the road. When you feel the skid, don’t hit the brakes. Instead, take your foot off the accelerator and allow the car to slow until you’re back in control. If the car starts to spin, steer into it to straighten up again. If you do skid, don’t panic and try to steer gently into it, softly pumping the brakes instead of slamming on.
It can also help to keep one ear on the road as snow and ice sound different when you’re driving on them. Snow will be crunchy as you drive over it. It will also create quite a bit of sound as it gets picked up and thrown around your wheel arches. Ice, on the other hand, will be quiet. So, if you’re driving along and suddenly there’s silence, you’ve probably hit a patch of the slippery stuff.
How to prepare for cold winter mornings
If you’re not prepared for them, cold mornings can add time to your commute. So make sure you’ve got the following to hand:
- De-icer - Icy door locks and windows can be a nightmare first thing in the morning, but spraying de-icer on windows, car handles and locks can quickly solve the problem. If you’ve not got a de-icer, it’s not recommended you pour a kettle full of boiling water over your windscreen – the clash of temperatures of boiling water and freezing cold glass may cause the windscreen to crack.
- Ice scraper - All too often we see drivers trying to de-ice their windows using a credit card. It takes ages. You’ll get cold hands and you may find your card snaps in half, then you’ve got another problem to deal with. If you haven’t got any de-icer or you’ve run out, make sure you’ve got a proper ice scraper (you can usually pick one up from a petrol station). It will make the job much less laborious and you will be inside your nice warm car in no time.
- Salt - Spreading salt both before the end of the day and first thing in the morning should help reduce the ice build-up overnight and will help to melt the ice in the morning, making it easier to drive on and off. This one is mainly for anyone who parks on a driveway but can still be useful if you park on the road.
- Small shovel - If the weather has been particularly adverse overnight, you may need a shovel to clear the snow from around your vehicle, allowing you a smooth getaway, as well as making it easier to park on your return home.
- Gloves and a woolly hat - If you’re going to have to clear snow and ice from your car, make sure that you’re well wrapped up. You may think you’ll only be out in the cold for a couple of minutes, but if the temperatures are particularly low, you’ll want to be as warm as possible.
Other ideas for the winter months are items such as a windscreen cover to try and reduce the amount of frost and ice on your windscreen and jump leads as the colder temperature may affect your car battery.
How to pack a winter car kit
Your car is all set for winter and you know how to drive in bad weather, but what if you get stuck in a snow-drift? Gather the following items and you should be able to survive until you can free yourself or help comes.
- Wind-up torch or normal torch and fully charged batteries – This is vital if you break down in the dark. And it may seem a little strange to say charged batteries, but they do lose power over time even if you’re not using them, so it's always best to check.
- High visibility vest and warning triangle – You should have these in your car at all times anyway. But if you don’t have them, now’s the time to make sure you get them. If you break down or get stuck on a dark wintery road and it’s snowing, these will be essential for others to see you and avoid running into you.
- Mobile and battery pack – If you’re wondering why we’re not suggesting a USB charger for your phone, then consider that a USB won’t be much use at all if your car battery dies.
- Breakdown company details – If you have breakdown cover, make sure you have all the details with you so you can easily contact them. If your breakdown recovery firm has a mobile app, it’s definitely worth downloading this as they can use it to track where you’re stranded.
- Spare screenwash – You don’t want to get caught without anything to wash your windscreen with as it could make driving tricky once you get going again.
- First aid kit – A basic first aid kit is a must for car journeys at any time of the year, but even more essential in the winter.
- Ice scraper and de-icer – If you get stuck for any length of time, it’s likely your windscreen will freeze over and will need deicing before you set off again, so you’ll need these.
- Blanket – Keeping yourself warm if you get trapped in your car overnight, or even for just a couple of hours if it’s below freezing, is essential. A good warm blanket should help.
- A stock of food and a bottle of water or flask – If you get stuck for any length of time you’ll be glad of these. Nut and seed bars are packed full of energy and can be kept for a long time.
- Toilet roll and plastic bags – Not something you might think about, but could become important if you’re stuck for longer than a few hours.
- Jumper cables – In case your battery fails you’ll need something to get you going again.
And that’s it. If you have this kit, you’ll be okay for at least a couple of hours and probably overnight.
Do you need a new car for winter?
Battery checks, tyre pressures and winter services are a good way to get your car ready for bad weather. But what if your old motor is simply past its best? A new car - or a newer used car - could help make winter driving a little bit more bearable. And a lot safer.
If you’re looking to change your current vehicle and need some help and advice on what you need to do, why not talk to one of the Zuto team? We can arrange car finance for a range of vehicles and circumstances, including bad credit.
Check out our car finance calculator to see how much you could borrow.