10 Essential Tips For Safer Winter Driving

    winter driving on the motorway
    Published: 6 January 2022. Written in partnership with WhatCar?

    With the weather taking a colder turn and the potential of snow falling, we’re more likely to use our cars for getting around. But driving in cold conditions can mean there are more possible dangers on the road. Here is your guide to avoiding the worst of the weather and staying safe when winter driving. 

    Winter is a wonderful time of year that conjures thoughts of fresh snow, hot chocolate, holidays and quality time hunkered cosily indoors with family and friends. But, when it comes to driving, the story isn’t always as picturesque.

    In the UK between 2016 and 2020, over 44,000 separate road collisions occurred in wintery weather[1], while almost a quarter of British drivers (23%) have been involved in a crash when driving in severe conditions[2], such as snow, ice, fog, floods, rain, thunderstorms and high winds.

    We’ve partnered with the experts over at WhatCar? to give you some simple helpful tips that help us to be better and safer drivers. Which is why this winter we’ve asked the driving experts to share their essential advice when it comes to keeping your passengers, other road users and pedestrians, and yourself safe on the road this winter.

    Prepare your car

    When it comes to safer winter driving, preparation is key. Ensuring you have the right tyres for the conditions with plenty of tread can help you stay in control on wet and icy roads. Proper regular car maintenance can help prevent a breakdown or accident. Equally, a full suite of winter emergency kit in the boot can keep you and your passengers warm and safe if you do hit trouble. That’s why we’ve compiled a separate list of 10 essential safety checks to help you prepare your car for winter.

    Plan your journeys

    Couple in car planning winter car journey

    Article 228 of the Highway Code states that you should only travel in icy or snowy conditions if your journey is essential.[3] Check sites like BBC Weather or the Met Office before you set off to check any weather warnings for your route. If there’s an extreme weather alert, consider postponing your journey. Or, at the very least, travel at a time when the weather could ease up.

    If you do have to travel, plot your route carefully. Try sticking to main roads that are less likely to be flooded, or more likely to be gritted to prevent ice and snow. And, if you’re planning a long journey, make sure to plot regular stops along the way. Driving in bad weather requires a lot of concentration, so taking regular breaks is essential to keeping you alert, aware and safe.

    Read the road

    Winter driving on a snow covered motorway

    On every journey, take note of the conditions around you. Has fresh snow fallen? Is there slush? Could there be ice? If you’re unsure about the conditions, get out and take a look – if things look too tricky or dangerous, there’s no shame in turning around and finding a better route.

    As a general rule, if the road looks shiny, be careful. Black ice catches out hundreds of drivers every year. So, if you suspect the road is slippery, take extra care. In comparison, freshly-fallen snow is safer to drive on than slush or compacted snow, due to the grip it provides – so don’t be afraid to use it.

    Look further ahead

    In poor weather conditions, your car’s stopping distance will be longer than usual for a multitude of reasons. First, poor visibility in rain, snow or fog will mean you’ll take longer to react – increasing your thinking distance, and therefore your stopping time. Second, research suggests that braking distances can be doubled in slippery conditions, and 10 times further in ice and snow due to a sheer lack of grip. That means it could take you more than the length of seven football pitches to stop from 70mph in snowy conditions.[5]

    To help counter this, you should look much further ahead down the road than you normally would in dry conditions. By doing this, you’ll not only give yourself more time to react to unexpected hazards, but have a greater chance of stopping in time.

    Keep it slow

    Winter driving slowly on country lane

    In 2018, ‘travelling too fast for the conditions’ contributed towards 4930 accidents (5.8%) in the UK, while exceeding the speed limit was a factor in 4652 collisions (5.5%).[4] Excess speed is dangerous at the best of times, but in wintery conditions it can have extreme consequences.

    Article 233 of the Highway Code states you should ‘drive extremely carefully’ in wintery conditions and should ‘avoid sudden actions’ that could upset the balance or grip of your car.[3] When driving on snow or ice, try using higher gears and lower revs for better traction, and accelerate even more gradually and carefully to prevent wheelspin.

    When slowing down or descending a hill, use your gears and engine braking to help control your speed, and avoid heavy or sudden braking that could cause a lock-up. If your wheels do lock up and your car doesn’t have ABS, don’t step on the brakes more heavily, as this will make it worse. Instead, pump the brake pedal to help regain traction and keep the wheels turning.

    Finally, if you find your car sliding or skidding, the Highway Code suggests you should: “remove the cause by releasing the brake pedal fully or easing off the accelerator and turn the steering wheel in the direction of the skid”. For example, if the rear of the vehicle skids to the right, steer immediately to the right to recover.

    Use momentum to get a grip on uphill climbs

    If you’re trying to climb a snowy or icy hill, build a bit of momentum before the incline to help you confidently carry your car up the slope, rather than leaving you scrabbling for grip. Use a higher gear to help with traction, avoid hard acceleration that could cause wheelspin, and, if it has been snowing, avoid compacted snow or wheel tracks of other cars. These will be icy.

    Keep your distance

    There are around 400,000 rear-end shunts in the UK every year, accounting for one in four collisions on our roads[6], so it’s always important to leave a good space. Most drivers will be familiar with the ‘two-second rule’, which means you should keep a gap of at least two seconds between yourself and the car ahead at all times. In the winter, this is more important than ever. According to the Highway code, your gap to the car ahead should be doubled in wet conditions, and up to 10 times further in snow or ice.[3]

    Use your lights (correctly)

    Car lights in snow

    Throughout the winter months, visibility is often poor, even during the day. So, it’s advisable to always keep your lights on (dipped beams), even during the lighter hours to ensure that other road users can quickly and easily see your car. You should also use your front and rear fog lights when visibility is less than 100m, but remember to turn them off when conditions improve so as not to blind other drivers.

    And, while it may seem counterintuitive, it’s not always recommended to use your full-beam headlights in heavy snow, rain or fog. This is because the light can often reflect back into the cabin and severely reduce your own visibility.

    Go slow through floods

    In 2019-2020, 470mm of rain fell during the winter months, making it one of the UK’s wettest winters on record[7], and this year could well be the same. It takes less than a cup of water to ruin a car’s engine, so it’s important to take care when driving through deep flooded sections of road.

    When you find a body of water, scope it out before you drive through. Try to look for reference points like walls or bridges to gauge the depth, and look for anything in the water that could damage your car. Once you’re confident you can get through, locate your car’s air intake – if water gets in, you’ll be in big trouble. When in the water, keep your car in a low gear and keep the revs up. Maintain momentum to create a bow wave to avoid bogging down and water-logging your engine.

    Don’t rely on all-wheel-drive

    In the past, it was only imposing SUVs and rally cars that featured 4X4 technology. Now, many saloons, hatchbacks and estates send their power to all-four wheels too. However, while all-wheel-drive does provide better confidence-inspiring traction, it doesn’t always help the turning or stopping of your car. So, don’t be lulled into a false sense of security, always drive with caution no matter what your car’s set-up.

    If you’re ready and prepared to go for a winter drive, then why not have a look at these 9 UK places you can drive off your bucket list to visit.

    As a Vitality car insurance member, you could get rewarded for your good driving. Available with qualifying car insurance plans. Log in to Member Zone for the details.