Winter Driving – an A to Z Guide

For drivers and their vehicles alike, winter is the most testing time of the year. Difficult driving conditions greatly increase the risk of an accident and even routine journeys can become hazardous experiences.Scandinavian winters are among the most severe in Europe and place extreme demands on the abilities of cars and their drivers to perform reliably and safely at all times. Chief Test Engineer Torbjörn Christensson gives a seasonal A to Z guide of simple “do’s” and “don’ts” that will be useful to all car drivers.


Anti-freeze is the engine’s first line of defence against sub-zero conditions. But how often do you check it? For it to remain effective, the recommended strength must be at least 50%. Topping up your coolant with water only, for example, will gradually dilute the mixture. To be sure of maximum protection, do ensure the anti-freeze is checked each year, regardless of mileage, as part of the car’s service.


Black ice. Whilst ice and snow are obvious hazards, black ice is an almost invisible threat, especially during the onset of freezing temperatures. Beware when driving round sheltered bends or corners which are shaded from the sun, because this is where black ice is most likely to catch out the unsuspecting. A tell-tale clue you are on black ice is when all goes quiet in the car and you cannot hear any tyre noise. Do not brake or make any sudden steering inputs but do ease off the accelerator and proceed slowly and smoothly.


Car batteries are put to a severe test in winter due to the extra demands of running heating fans and lights. Most are now maintenance-free but do have the voltage checked, especially if the car is repeatedly used for short journeys. Consider charging the battery overnight or try to plan a longer run occasionally.


De-icing can be a chore. If you don’t park in a garage, do take time to cover the windscreen with a sheet of cardboard. You won’t have the chore of scraping ice off the next morning or coping with smears from de-icing fluid. But do spray the door locks, provided your car is not fitted with remote-controlled locking, and the rubber door seals for easier opening.


An Electronic Traction Control System is a valuable driving aid for coping with slippery conditions. If either or both driven wheels lose grip, the brakes are activated and, if necessary, engine power is reduced. However, do not stop driving sensibly, as conditions dictate, just because your car has TCS!


Freezing conditions can occur quite suddenly during cold spells, even during the course of a car journey. Most modern cars have an outside temperature display for the driver which acts as a good warning system. If you don’t have one, do make sure you are aware of changing conditions and a likely turn in the weather.


Grip is at a premium in winter conditions. Did you know, for example, that a tyre with the legal minimum 1.6mm tread depth displaces 85 per cent less water than a new tyre? So, to prevent the risk of aquaplaning, do beware of the danger of standing water, even if it’s not frozen. And do remember to use your brakes immediately after going through standing water to make sure they will operate effectively when needed.


Head restraints are an essential protection against whiplash injuries in rear-end collisions, which can easily occur in slippery winter conditions. Do make sure yours is correctly adjusted, particularly if you share the driving seat with someone smaller. The restraint should be level with the back of the head. If it is too low, your head will pivot round it during an impact, putting even more strain on your neck.


In case of a breakdown, do make sure you carry a warning triangle to alert traffic that you are parked on the road, giving adequate warning, and put on your hazard indicators. On a motorway, for example, keep well away from the car while waiting for assistance. And if you are not already covered, do ensure you have access to emergency roadside assistance.


Jump leads are a common feature of winter motoring. They are certainly worth carrying, for your own use or to help someone else, but do you know how to connect them up correctly? Always start by first connecting both positive terminals and then connect the negative terminal of the live battery to the engine block, using the lifting eyebolt, for example, of the other car. Never connect to the negative terminal because of the risk of a spark igniting vapours near the battery.


Keep an even greater distance from the vehicle in front during icy conditions. Did you know, for example, that the stopping distance for a car travelling at 50 kph is more than twice as long in icy conditions?


Lights – front, rear and indicators – require special attention when it’s snowy and slushy. They quickly become caked in road grime, so do clean them after every journey, or even mid-journey in severe conditions, so that you can “see and be seen” at all times. The range of your car’s headlamps, for example, can be reduced by as much as 30 metres if road grime is allowed to accumulate on the lens. And don’t forget to keep a well-charged hand torch in your car in case of emergencies.


Manual transmission allows you to use a higher gear, second instead of first or even third instead of second, to minimise wheelspin when moving off or accelerating in snow and ice. But for those with automatics, do remember to use “winter mode” if available, which has much the same effect. A traction contol system (TCS), if fitted, will also prevent wheelspin.


Night driving is more common in winter due to the shorter days. Fog at night can be disorientating and snow hitting the windscreen is distracting. Do remember to keep your headlights on dipped beam to reduce rebound glare and dim down the instrument display. And do use foglights, but don’t forget to switch them off. In some countries it is an offence to leave them on when conditions are clear.


Oil in the engine can become extremely thick and heavy when your car is left overnight in very cold conditions. To protect the moving parts adequately, it must be able to quickly thin down during warm up so do not work the engine too hard when it’s cold. And where temperatures are consistently as low as -20°C, do consider using an engine oil with a lower viscosity, such as 5W/30 or 5W/40.


Paintwork has a tough job in winter resisting the corrosive effects of salt, as well as the ravages of snow and ice. So do hose down and clean the car frequently, always checking your brakes afterwards, and make sure the drain holes in the bodywork do not become blocked with grime or leaves. Whilst the underside of many new cars is undersealed, it is worth checking your car is adequately protected. You will be safeguarding its value as well as its looks.


Quick warming up of the car is, of course, desirable when starting in cold conditions but do not be tempted to take a short cut by leaving your car stationary with the engine running. That may harm both the environment and the engine. If you don’t have air conditioning, do leave the side windows open slightly as this will speed up the de-misting process.


Rear vision should not be neglected when starting off in snow. Wait for the heated screen to take effect and do take care not to damage the elements if you use an ice scraper. If your car has a rear wiper, it can be used to clear away light snow but do first check that it is not frozen to the glass. The same goes for the front windscreen wipers, of course.


Skidding in snow or ice can easily occur, even at relatively low speeds. If it does happen, never brake. In the event of a front-wheel skid in a front-wheel drive car, dip the clutch to disengage the engine (select neutral in an automatic), and steer the front wheels in the direction you wish to go. For a rear wheel skid, steer into the skid, ie. in the direction the rear of the car is moving. ABS (anti-lock braking system), if fitted, will help prevent skidding under braking. The brake pedal vibrates 12 times per second when ABS is activated but be sure you keep it pressed down hard. Try it for experience under safe conditions.


Tires are your car’s only point of contact with the road and in severe conditions do consider fitting winter tyres. Apart from providing more grip on icy roads, they also give a much better braking response. If you do use snow chains, only fit them to the driven wheels. And if you are stuck, try reducing your tyre pressures. This gives more grip by putting more tyre tread in contact with the ground. But do remember to immediately pump your tyres up again.


Use caution at all times. For example, on icy roads you should double your distance from the vehicle in front to allow an adequate braking zone. Do plan your journeys and do be prepared for emergencies, an incident that may be a minor inconvenience in summer can become a major drama in more difficult winter conditions.


Ventilation inside the car is an important safety consideration. We all like to be snug and warm when it’s cold outside but do beware of the danger of becoming drowsy. A key benefit of air conditioning is that it helps keep the interior fresh and the driver alert. If you don’t have it, don’t be tempted to get too warm. So do keep a window open and do take a break, especially on long journeys. And remember to take off that thick winter coat to minimise any slack in your seat belt.


Windscreen washers are vital for maintaining good vision in winter. Do make sure the washer bottle is always topped up because if you wipe the windscreen without any fluid, you risk making it opaque. Prevent the washer system freezing up in winter by using an anti-icing solution. But never add anti-freeze – it risks damaging the paintwork.


Xenon gas discharge headlamps are becoming more common in cars and are the next major breakthrough in lighting technology following the introduction of halogen lamps. Xenon lights have a longer range, ease eye-strain for the driver by giving a broader, much whiter beam and also reduce dazzle for on-coming traffic.

Y and Z

Year round reliability is, of course, best assured by having your car regularly serviced by an approved agent. As well as having important safety systems such as brakes, tyres, steering and lights properly maintained, do ask for advice about driving in Zero temperatures. Do consider using a wide range of winter accessories designed to make your life easier at the toughest time of the year.


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