As the first snows of winter begin to fall across the north of the country, forecasters are predicting that the weather's only going to get colder – and the promise of snow, sleet, ice or hail will instantly have drivers wincing at the prospect of, at best, long queues – and at worst, a nasty accident.
So to help you make sure you're prepared for the worst the winter weather can throw at you, we've searched high and low for the best winter driving advice, and we've collated it here in one easy-to-follow list of the most salient and important tips to keep you motoring through the rough weather.
>1. Drive as little as possible
You'll have heard this one before, usually in the form of "Don't travel unless your journey is absolutely necessary." It's easy to scoff at, because most car journeys have some importance, but it really is worth thinking twice before you grab the car keys. Ultimately, if the weather's really bad, you'll be safer – not to mention happer – staying at home. Ask yourself which sounds better: getting stuck in traffic for two hours before admitting defeat and returning home anyway, or never setting out in the first place, staying warm, and getting something constructive done with your time.
Knowing your car's in tip-top condition isn't just about peace of mind. Winter driving places extra demands on a vehicle, and certain components become more crucial than ever. A simple check of lights, fluid levels, and tyre tread depths and pressures might reveal something you really ought to know about. If your wiper blades are worn, make sure they're changed to avoid smear, and top up your screen wash. Don't forget to get your garage to check your battery and the concentration of your anti-freeze, too.
3. Pack an emergency kit
If you do end up stranded, it's a good idea to make sure you're ready. Packing an emergency kit including a snow shovel, a foil blanket, a wind-up torch, a tow rope, de-icer, bottled water, long-lasting snacks, and sand or road salt will ensure you're prepared for most eventualities. Carrying a spare mobile phone that's always charged is also not a bad idea.
4. Fit winter tyres or snow socks
Carrying snow chains will help in the most extreme situations, but snow socks are a better bet as they're far easier to fit and won't damage the road surface if it isn't entirely covered in a blanket of snow. Better still, though, buy a set of winter tyres and fit them now for the whole winter. They're more effective below 7C in any weather conditions, not just in snow, and offer more grip on loose or slippery surfaces, too. Simply swap them back for the summer tyres once the sun decides to show its face again.
5. Know your route
Using a site like Google Maps will enable you to check the traffic on your proposed route. If it's blocked, or there's been an incident, it's worth avoiding that road – but make sure you print off some directions or know your diversion so that you won't get lost. Try to avoid quiet country lanes, as they're unlikely to have been cleared of snow, and if you do get lost or stuck, you might end up out of signal and struggling to summon help. And if in doubt, don't travel.
6. Clear your car's glass fully
Sounds obvious, this one, but you'd be astonished. Some people are crazy enough to try driving with just a tiny peep-hole cleared from their screens. If it's cold outside, you should build enough time into your morning routine to clear the whole screen, including the passenger side. Also don't forget to make sure your rear-view mirrors and rear screen are cleared too, so that you can see what's happening behind you – and of course, remember to clear your side windows too, so that you can see what's coming at junctions.
7. Brush away the snow from the top of your car
If a few inches of snow have formed on your roof overnight, don't just leave them there when you drive away. Eventually, the warmth of your car will melt the bottom layer, and the wind resistance will cause huge chunks of snow to slide back down. These could cover your rear screen, or worse, fly off at high speed and hit the car behind. If they happen to have tree debris – twigs or chunks of bark – hidden in them, they could cause serious damage. Again, it sounds like common sense, but you'd be amazed how many people don't bother an the police will prosecute if they see necessary.
8. Turn on your lights
Using your headlights in winter is as much about being seen as it is about seeing. Even in low sun, dipped beams can make the difference between other road users spotting you and missing you. It's good practice to get into the habit of turning your lights on whatever the weather, especially if your car isn't fitted with daytime running lights, so that you don't forget to do so if the weather changes during your journey. Also remember that your dash lights might not be enough of a guide – some cars illuminate their dashboard lighting even if the headlights are turned off. So check the switch instead.
9. Drive to the conditions
If you're driving on summer tyres, you'll have reduced grip when it's cold and even less if it's wet. Keep that in mind and remember to drive to the conditions. It can take you twice as long to stop on a wet road, and ten times as long on one that's icy, so ensure you're leaving enough of a gap. If it's foggy, slow down and make sure you can stop if an obstacle should loom. Driving in snow is not impossible, but it's essential to keep inputs gentle, smooth and slow. Steering or braking too violently can cause the car to break traction and send you into a skid. Get into a higher gear as early as possible – this will make it harder to spin your wheels which will also make skidding less likely. And if you do end up skidding, take your feet off both the brake and the throttle and steer into the skid until you regain control.
10. If you do get stuck...
...don't spin your wheels. It's a mistake many people make, but spinning the wheels frantically will do two things: it'll melt the snow, which will then re-freeze, building up ice and making your job even harder, and you'll only dig yourself further into the rut you've created. Instead, try to dig away the snow in front of the drive wheels, sprinkle salt, and if you have them, take your floor mats out of the footwells and place them in front of the wheels – they'll help give you extra traction. If the worst comes to the worst, try rocking the car back and forth by shifting from first to reverse and driving forward and back. If you are stuck, be sure to clear your exhaust of snow, too – if it gets blocked, it could cause a deadly build up of carbon monoxide within the car.