WHEN SNOW and ice hit the UK, often rather suddenly, the nation’s drivers have to adapt to driving on extremely low-grip roads.
Despite long-range forecasts and weather warnings from the emergency services, advising drivers in parts of the UK not to travel unless they have to, motorists still get caught out on the roads as gritting lorries and snow ploughs struggle to keep up.
That’s why it does no harm to be reminded of the dos and don’ts of winter driving. Follow these steps and you’re more likely to escape a scrape.
1 Remove all snow and ice
If your view of the road is obscured by snow, frost or fog, you’re breaking the law. Clear the windscreen, side windows and wing mirrors before setting off. Brush snow off the roof, too, as that could slide down onto the windscreen once you’re moving.
2 Don’t let air out of your tyres
It’s an oft-repeated myth, but reducing your tyre pressures will not help your grip on snow, say experts.
“Your tyres are designed to function at a certain pressure and changing that could be dangerous,” says Adrian Tink of the RAC.“The most important thing is to make sure you have sufficient tread depth.”
In Britain that means at least 1.6mm of tread, across the width of the tyre. In snow, 3mm will help massively. Winter tyres will also help, and of course modern four-wheel drive is a big advantage for both traction and stability.
3 How to pull away
Try setting off in a higher gear when driving on snow and ice. This reduces wheel rotations, so lessening your chance of skidding. Go down through the gears to help you slow down, applying the brakes only intermittently. Engage the clutch slowly and gently when setting off. If you have an automatic, look for a winter mode button, which will reduce power from the engine to the wheels.
4 Keep the speed down
An obvious one: too much speed will increase the risk of losing control. Any kind of skid indicates you’ve been driving too fast for the conditions.
5 Keep a larger gap to the car in front
Stopping distances increase massively on snow and ice — the Highway Code says it can be 10 times longer. Leave a 10-second gap between you and the car in front. This applies to 4×4 drivers as well — they may find it easier to gain traction as they head out of a snowdrift, but they’ll have the same grip issues when stopping.
6 No sudden movements
Any harsh braking or steering is bad in these conditions. Look well ahead and when cornering, reduce speed early by lifting off the accelerator gently, before using the brakes to reduce speed, then take your foot off the brakes before turning and feather the steering and accelerator through the turn. Accelerating hard out of the corner could spin the wheels cause a skid.
7 Don’t be afraid to use the brakes
If everything suddenly goes eerily quiet, the chances are you’re driving on ice. Black ice most often builds up on bridges and underpasses, where there is cold, wet air passing above and below the surface.
Whereas the advice used to be not to stand on the brakes when you hit ice, as older cars will lock the wheels, most modern cars have sophisticated computer-controlled anti-lock brakes and stability systems. So if you lose traction in a newish car, brake with full force and the electronics will do the rest.
If you don’t have ABS, you may still use the brakes but very lightly; you want to avoid locking the wheels, as that provides zero control. This is called “threshold braking”. Another technique known as cadence braking involves pumping the brake pedal, or you could use a combination of these techniques. The important thing is to allow the braked wheels to rotate.
Whatever, be sure to do your braking in a straight line, rather than while turning, as that could induce a spin or understeer/snap oversteer.
Three ways drivers can get a grip in snow
Winter tyres: made from a different rubber composite from conventional tyres that does not harden in cold temperatures, these improve traction below 7C. Different tread patterns reduce stopping distances. They cost 10%-15% more than conventional tyres and about £50 to fit. Buy at BlackCircles.com
Snow chains: fitted to the driven wheels of the car, chains increase grip by biting through the snow and ice. They are usually sold in pairs and must match a particular tyre size. Driving with chains will reduce fuel efficiency and limit the speed to 20-30mph. Fitting can be fiddly and they cost £50-£150 a set. Buy at Halfords.com
Snow socks: a cheaper alternative that you pull over the tyres of the driven wheels. They are made of a textile that optimises grip on the road. Simpler to fit than snow chains, they cost about £50 a pair. Drivers must keep below 50mph. Buy at Halfords.com
Essential safety kit for driving in snow
Torch (with batteries)
De-icer and scraper
Mobile phone charger
Spare headlamp bulbs
Hat and gloves