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Winter driving safety checklist

Winter can be tough on cars, and breaking down in the freezing cold is no picnic for you either. To help minimise the risk of mechanical problems, try these cold-weather car maintenance tips. 

Winter can be tough on cars, and breaking down in the freezing cold is no picnic for you either. To help minimise the risk of mechanical problems, try these cold-weather car maintenance tips. 

Daniel Hutson
From the Motor team
13
minute read
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Posted 20 OCTOBER 2020

Our essential winter driving checklist

Slippery surfaces, rain and snow, frozen car components and spray thrown up by other people’s wheels… driving in winter can be difficult and potentially dangerous. To help you prepare for those colder months, we’ve put together some tips and advice for driving in winter.

Preparing your car for winter

While you can’t prevent all breakdowns, good car maintenance can help reduce the risk. A few minutes invested in some checks could save you the hassle and stress of being stranded at the roadside. Equally, regular servicing will help to keep your car in tip-top condition and bring any issues to your attention early.

However well prepared you are, breakdowns happen – that’s where breakdown cover comes in. Knowing you’re covered can give you peace of mind, no matter what the season.

A well-maintained battery

Cold and damp weather can play havoc with batteries – in fact your car is 51% more likely to have battery problems in winter, according to Axa, while the AA says battery issues are the most common cause of call-outs in the winter months. Lower temperatures affect the chemical reactions inside them, making them less efficient. On top of that, during dark winter months your lights and heater are used more, which means more battery power is consumed. If you’re waiting with the engine off, try to avoid using the heater and stereo, as these will drain the battery and could leave you without enough power to re-start the engine. 

Batteries don’t usually last for more than about five years and it can be as little as two to three years if you mainly do short journeys, according to the AA. So as winter approaches, it might be worth investing in a new one if yours is nearing the end of its working life.

If you do buy a new battery, the RAC recommends having it professionally fitted, because if the leads are connected incorrectly you can do serious damage to your vehicle's electronic system. Old batteries need to be carefully recycled so check if this is part of the service too, otherwise you'll need to take the old battery to your local recycling centre.

Clean, working lights

Make sure all your car lights are in good working order so you can see and be seen on dark evenings and rainy or foggy days. In wintry conditions there’s often a lot of dirty spray from the road surface that can coat and dim your car lights. Regularly give them a good wipe to aid visibility.

Topped-up oil

Keeping an eye on your oil levels is a year-round job, but it becomes especially important in winter. The experience of breaking down is much more uncomfortable and even dangerous in the dark and cold.

Antifreeze in all the right places

Make sure your windscreen wash contains anti-freeze and keep the levels topped up. Just like your lights, your windscreen will get covered in dirt from road surfaces which can reduce visibility very quickly, so it’s important you can wash it effectively.

Some older car models may require antifreeze added to the radiator to prevent the cooling system freezing. However, more modern vehicles have longer lasting antifreeze pre-added, which often shouldn’t be mixed with traditional antifreeze solutions. Ask a mechanic or your manufacturer if you’re not sure about your car’s requirements.

Good road visibility through your windscreen 

If you’re in a rush, it can be tempting to set off with the windscreen still partially frozen or steamed up. Resist the temptation though, as reduced visibility means you’re much more likely to have an accident – and be held liable for it.

As well as keeping your screenwash topped up with a formula containing antifreeze, it’s a good idea to make sure your wiper blades are in good condition. They don’t cost much to replace, and the safety benefits they provide are priceless.

Tyres that can handle cold weather hazards

For people living in colder or more rural areas, winter tyres and snow chains can help with road safety. Winter tyres come with deeper tread patterns and are better equipped to deal with snow and ice. Read AutoTrader’s guide to winter tyres for more information.

If you don’t want to invest in winter tyres or snow chains, you should still make sure that you have deep enough tread on your tyres. Though the minimum the law requires is 1.6mm, the AA recommends at least 2mm and preferably 3mm.

Wet, wintry conditions increase the risk of aquaplaning. This is when water builds up between your tyres and the surface of the road. It’s very dangerous as it can lead to you losing control of the vehicle. The more tread you have, the less likely this is to happen.

As well as good tread levels, make sure you regularly check your tyre pressures conform to the manufacturer’s recommendations, and make sure your spare tyre is in the same good condition as the other four.

What to do if you breakdown in winter

If you’re unlucky enough to breakdown in winter, it’s important to know what to do. Without getting too dramatic, it’s a serious situation to find yourself in, so you need to know how to stay safe and get help.

To start with, you’ll want to pull over in as safe a place as possible. Depending on how you breakdown, this may not always be possible, but, if you can get to the side of the road, you’ll want to do so, to prevent causing an accident.

Having your phone with you can be a real life saver. You probably take it with you everywhere you go anyway, but make sure that it’s got plenty of battery, particularly if you’re going on long trips. The best thing to do is have a charger in the car with you, so you’re charging your phone battery as you’re driving, so you should then have plenty of juice when you need it most. As soon as you’re able to, ring your breakdown cover provider to tell them where you are, so they can come to your rescue. It’s also a good idea to call a friend or family member, so someone else knows where you are, in case your battery or signal fails you later. Just don't use your phone while driving – you can get 6 penalty points and a £200 fine if you do, and, if you only passed your test within the last two years, you could lose your licence.

While you wait, it’s obviously going to be cold. Hopefully you’ve got plenty of warm clothes to keep you warm, but it’s also a good idea to keep the engine warm. If you can, turn the engine on for a while every hour or so. It’ll keep the engine warm which could prevent further mechanical issues, but it’ll also help keep you warm too.

If it’s safe to do so and you’re able to, you may want to clear your car of snow to help keep it visible to other drivers. This may largely depend on where you breakdown, but it can help keep you and others safe. However, trying to dig your car out of snow is often a pointless effort, and, more importantly, it will tire you out when you should prioritise staying warm and dry.

Take a look at our breakdown checklist for more on what to put in your breakdown emergency kit.

Winter car essentials

While you should always have some essentials tucked away in the boot of your car, winter is a harder time than most, so you should consider packing some extras, to help you if you breakdown in the cold, wet and snowy, including:

Ice scraper
While you might be used to using de-icer or warm water at home, these things either run out or are inaccessible depending on where you breakdown. That’s why it’s always best to have a simple ice scraper with you to help clear your windows.

Fully charged phone, charger and battery pack
Most of us take our phones everywhere with us, but make sure that your battery is topped up before taking a long journey. The best way to avoid a dead phone battery is by having a charger in the car with you, so you can always be charging while on the move. However, a breakdown could include your car battery failing, so a battery pack for your phone can be an excellent back up.

Sat nav
Whether it’s built in or you go out and buy one, a sat nav is essential for most of us at any time of year. In a breakdown situation though, they can help you tell your breakdown cover provider exactly where you are. This means they won’t need to search for you in the dark, and can come to your rescue much sooner.

Atlas
While a sat nav is more convenient, we all know that technology can let us down. That’s why we also recommend that you have an atlas as a backup plan. Yes, atlases still exist, and a good one can really help you out in a tough spot.

Empty fuel can
Sometimes a breakdown can be simply because you’ve run out of fuel. If you know that you’re within walking distance of a petrol station, having an empty fuel can will allow you to sort the problem yourself, without a potentially long wait for the breakdown services to come and rescue you.

Sunglasses
We know, a pair of sunglasses is definitely a weird one for a winter checklist, but stay with us. In winter, with the days being so short, the sun is often quite low, which can make driving quite dangerous. A simple pair of sunglasses can help improve your visibility.

Emergency equipment

If you do break down, having emergency provisions will make life easier. These could include…

Jump leads
While breakdowns can happen for all sorts of reasons, you may find that a simple jump start is all you need to get you back on the road, if your car battery dies. Everyone should have jump leads in the boot of their car.

Warm clothes

Depending on how bad the situation is, you may need to wait a long time in the freezing cold before help arrives. You may even need to venture out to find help. To prepare for this, you should pack a set of warm (lots of layers!) and waterproof clothes to help keep you as warm and dry as possible.

Blankets
On the topic of staying warm, blankets are another great thing to have tucked away in the boot. If it’s late at night and you’re waiting for the breakdown recovery van to rescue you, you’ll want to stay as warm as possible. Try to resist the urge to sleep though, as this can be dangerous. You should stay awake and alert to danger, and it also helps prevent hypothermia.

Food and drink
It’s always a good idea to have some food in the car. For long journeys, it’s always great to have a snack to top you up, but it can also be an essential if you breakdown. Ideally you want things with a decent shelf life. Energy bars are a good option, but anything that won’t spoil quickly will work.

Wellies or other sensible shoes
Wellies are great for trudging through the snow and will help keep your feet dry, which is very important. If you don’t have any (consider buying some!), then another pair of sensible shoes can help a lot. Something with good grip, to help you walk potentially slippery ground is best.

A torch
While you might think ‘ah my phone has a torch, that’ll do’, this can be a mistake. Your phone’s torch will make its now precious battery drain very quickly, and, let’s be honest, it’s just not a great torch, is it? Ideally you want a powerful torch that can help guide your way or attract others to your position. You should also keep spare batteries too, as they drain faster in colder conditions.

A tow rope
We know this isn’t the sort of thing everyone has, but it could literally get you out of a tough spot. If you’re stuck in the snow, you might find you need pulling out of trouble, and a tow rope will save you a huge amount of effort.

De-icer and a scraper
We’ve all been there, you wake up one morning, or return to the car after a day out, and the car has frozen over. Other than making you late for work when you have to spend time scraping it all off before hitting the road, it can make a bad breakdown situation even worse. Because of this, it’s best to have a few cans of de-icer in the boot of your car, and a scraper is always useful if you run out of the good stuff.

A shovel
Up a level from the de-icer and scraper, a shovel can be very useful if you need to clear snow around your car. You should prioritise staying warm and dry, but if the situation is bad enough, you may need to dig yourself out of trouble.

A high visibility vest
While it’s not a legal requirement in the UK, there’s a reason that it is in some other European countries. If you breakdown late at night, on a dark country lane, a hi-vis jacket or vest can make a real difference in keeping you safe. They’re pretty cheap and can save lives.

A first aid kit
Hopefully you won’t need it, but you’d rather have one and never use it than need it and kick yourself for not having. If your breakdown causes an injury, or you hurt yourself when heading out to find help, a first aid kit is something you’re going to want to have packed.

Winter driving tips

Driving in wintry conditions is no joke. We’ve been over all the essentials you should load into your car to help you during a breakdown, but you need more than that. Don’t be accused of having “all the gear but no idea”, by following our winter driving tips:

  • Slow down – this is an obvious one, but we can’t overstate how important this is. In the rain, snow or ice, your braking distances are significantly extended, which means you need to take extra care. To avoid sliding out or being unable to stop soon enough, just ease off that accelerator a bit. Those few extra minutes you might save just aren’t worth the risk.
  • Take it easy on the pedals – a similar point, but you should avoid heavily accelerating, but also braking, too. If you accelerate too quickly in the snow, you’ll just cause wheel spin, while braking too hard will cause you to skid at a higher speed.
  • Avoid tailgating – while you shouldn’t be doing this at any time, it’s most important in wet, snowy or icy conditions. Just give everyone some space. Braking distances could be up to 10 times further than in normal conditions, and other drivers, who are less experienced, may lose control of their vehicle and become a hazard you’ll want to avoid.
  • Check your tyres – it’s bad enough driving in the snow with good tyres, so check them before heading out in the rain and snow, to make sure they’ll get the job done properly. By this we mean having good pressure and enough tread for grip. If it’s particularly bad, consider snow chains, but these should only be used in thicker snow.
  • Clear your car of snow before setting off – if you have a large amount of snow on your roof and you don’t clear it, that snow could fall onto your windshield and become an immediate and very dangerous hazard. You should also make sure all of your lights are clear, so that people can see you in low visibility conditions.

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