Driving safely this winter

Children sledging snow car

The kids may love it when it snows but the white stuff can make for treacherous road conditions. Follow our tips and you'll be prepared for every eventuality

Winter-proof your car

Arriving safely depends partly on your car being in the best possible condition to take whatever the weather throws at it, so make the following checks well before you head off on any longish car journey:

  • Tyre tread and pressures Check that the tread is 1.6mm deep across at least three-quarters of the grooved area, all the way round. The easiest way to do this is to insert a 1p coin into the tread – 1.6mm is the distance to the bottom of the '1' on the 'tails' side of the coin. This is the legal minimum but we'd recommend at least 3mm deep to be at your safest – turn the 1p coin over and 3mm is the distance to the top of the Queen's head. You can check your tyre pressures at most fuel garages; the correct pressures for your car are usually printed on a sticker inside your fuel cap, but they'll also be in your car's manual.
  • Brakes They should stop the car quickly and allow you to apply brake pressure progressively. If your car jerks to a sudden halt, or doesn't react quickly enough, get a garage to investigate.
  • Lights Check they all work in every combination, including the foglights (you may have these on the front of the car too).
  • Battery If your car doesn't normally get used much, take it for a run of at least half an hour twice a week in the fortnight or so before your big trip, to get it properly charged up.
  • Anti-freeze Make sure there's the correct amount of anti-freeze (coolant) in your car's cooling system, or your car could suffer some nasty damage. You can buy anti-freeze ready-diluted or you can add distilled water yourself using the instructions on the bottle. Before you buy, check in your car's manual or with its manufacturer as to which type of anti-freeze is suitable for your car.
  • Screenwash Top up your screenwash (check your manual for where to find the reservoir) as you'll be cleaning your windscreen more often than usual to clear spray from the road, including any salt spread by gritting lorries. Make sure you dilute it to the correct proportions for the predicted temperature, as stated on the bottle.
  • Windscreen wipers If your wipers leave streaks across the windscreen, obscuring your view, they'll be a safety hazard. They may just be dirty, in which case you can refresh them with glass cleaner; if this doesn't work they may be worn and you'll need to replace them.
  • Oil level Your manual will tell you how to check this on your car, though many cars now have integrated oil sensors that will tell you via a symbol on the dashboard if the level is too low. Top it up if it's on the low side, but if it's very low check with your garage that there's not an underlying cause.

For extra peace of mind, you could get your car serviced before you undertake any journey where you definitely wouldn't want to break down. This may seem a bit extravagant, but less so if it reduces the risk of breaking down half way up the M6 on Christmas Eve with four kids in the car.

Whatever you do, try not to put cost before your family's safety. If you feel any aspect of your car isn't performing properly, get it checked by a qualified technician.

Winter tyres and snow chains

If you're likely to do several journeys in heavy snow, consider fitting tyres (your garage can probably store your normal tyres for a fee). In temperatures under about 3°C or 4°C, these can improve your car's grip, and your safety. However, in temperatures above 5°C they actually compromise grip and handling, and increase the distance required for a safe emergency stop, so it's only worth fitting them if quite a lot of your driving is likely to be in the white stuff.

Snow snocks are a cheaper alternative. These comprise a special fabric cover you can easily fit over your tyre when needed and provide extra grip on snow, though they can only be used at speeds under 25mph.

Snow chains aren't worth having unless you're going to be constantly driving on snow and ice for considerable stretches of time, as it's illegal to drive with them on exposed tarmac due to the damage they can cause to the road surface.

Essential items for every trip

When teeth-chattering temperatures, snow and ice are on the menu, you'll need the following even on short journeys:

  • De-icer and a decent scraper De-icer spray will hugely speed up the process of removing ice from your windscreen but you'll also need a scraper that's made for the purpose (a Tupperware lid found under a car seat is useless for a thick layer of ice). Warm, waterproof gloves will make this task slightly less unpleasant.

Don't be tempted to pour hot water on the ice as this can cause the glass to crack. Avoid leaving the car unattended while you wait for it to heat up if there's any risk someone could jump in the driver's seat and make off with your car and its contents (including your child – yes, this has happened).

  • Sunglasses These will help you cope with the glare from a low sun on white snow.
  • An in-car phone charger Cold weather will deplete your phone's battery faster than normal – unless, of course, you keep it's always in a warm environment.

Emergency kit for longer journeys

Pack the following for longer trips or journeys so you'll be able to cope while you wait for help if your car breaks down or gets stuck in snow:

  • Plenty of warm and waterproof clothing for everyone, including waterproof boots
  • A blanket for additional warmth, especially if you need to switch the car off to conserve fuel (don't run the engine if the exhaust might be blocked by snow, however).
  • A warm drink in a Thermos
  • Bottles of water and bars of chocolate (or more sustaining high-energy foods, such as flapjacks)
  • At least one high-visibility jacket
  • At least one torch
  • A first aid kit (new cars may have one hidden away somewhere – check the manual)
  • A reflective triangle to supplement your hazard lights
  • Jump-start cables
  • A shovel
  • Something to keep your child distracted if you have to wait for help (avoid items that rely on the car's battery to work, and take spare batteries if these might be needed)

For children and babies in particular, pack the following:

  • Jars or pouches of baby food, plus a spoon, a cloth bib and a plastic bowl (a plastic pot with a lid is even better as you can use this as a bowl then seal the used bib and spoon in it afterwards)
  • Cartons of ready-made formula, plus your baby's usual type of bottle or beaker
  • Spare nappies and wipes, and a portable changing mat for squirmy babies

Before you set off

  • Subscribe to rescue cover Ideally, go for a tariff that at least takes you home or onward to your destination; pay more and you will also get a replacement vehicle. What you don't want is to be stranded at a random garage with a broken car and cold, tired children.
  • Recalculate your journey time The weather alone can make progress slow, and traffic can frequently come to a standstill when the weather turns bad. Allowing extra time for your journey means you can avoid getting stressed about any delays and concentrate on driving safely. Always let someone know when you are setting off and what time you're likely to arrive, given the conditions.
  • Allow time to clear your windows Remove all ice and snow from your windows and make sure you thoroughly de-mist the inside too, making use of heated windscreens if your car has them. Make sure the car's air vents are putting out plenty of warm air to keep the car from steaming up during your trip, and remember it's actually illegal to start moving until you have good all-round visibility.

How to drive safely in winter weather

  • Slow down The time it takes to come to a halt after an emergency stop can double just because the road is wet; on snow and ice it will take much longer. To allow for this you'll need to generally slow down and leave a bigger gap between you and the car in front. Be especially careful in fog because it will be harder to judge the distance of other cars' brakelights.
  • Use your foglights But only if you genuinely need them – once visibility has improved you are legally obliged to turn them off because they can dazzle other drivers in normal conditions and create a safety hazard.
  • Never let your fuel tank run low Fill up if it becomes less than a quarter full. This will give you enough reserve to sit in a long traffic queue or run the heating and lights for a while if you get stuck. In cold weather, batteries lose charge more quickly than usual so try to avoid switching off the engine and relying on the battery for power as this could leave it without enough charge to start the engine again.
  • Be on your guard for tricky conditions Remember that the nature of black ice is that you can't see it.
  • Help prevent skids Do this by driving smoothly with no sudden braking or changes of direction.
  • Start in second gear If you can't move off because your wheels keep spinning on snow or ice, try starting in second gear and be extremely gentle with the pedals.

What to do in an emergency situation

1. If you start to skid

It can be pretty frightening if your car skids on ice or compacted snow, but you'll regain control more quickly if you keep your nerve and know how to react. The trick is to avoid the instinct to stamp on the brakes, and do the following instead.

If you turn the steering wheel and the car sails on regardless …

If this happens, you need to ease off the accelerator (but don't take your foot off completely) until you feel the wheels gripping the road again – at which point you can continue driving or, more likely, pull over and get your breath back.

If you turn the steering wheel and the back end of the car swings round behind you…

This is most likely to happen in rear-wheel drive cars such as BMWs and more powerful Mercedes models. You'll need to do two things: turn the steering wheel back the other way from the direction you were turning, and apply a little more power, not less. As soon as you feel the car has regained its grip, you can ease off the gas and continue driving – or stop and thank your lucky stars.

2. If the wheels can't grip enough to move off

If your car's wheels keep slipping when you try to set off, avoid the temptation to wildly rev the engine, as the spinning wheels will create a rut of snow around the tyres that will only make matters worse. Instead, try to get moving by putting the car into second (or even third) gear and using the pedals very, very gently. At the same time, turn the wheel from left to right – this can often help the car find the grip it needs.

That said, if your car has traction control this will cut the engine power and stop the wheels from moving at all if it detects wheel spin. In this case, it can be worth turning off the traction control if you get stuck, as a tiny bit of wheelspin can actually help the car find some grip – but make sure you turn it back on as soon as you've got going.

If none of this works, you can try clearing the snow around the wheels (which is why it's a good idea to carry a shovel), or do something else to give them some grip – this is when snow snocks (see above), some plastic snow tracks or a home-made alternative like strips of old carpet come in. Just don't leave them behind when you've got the car free as you may need them again.

If you're part-way through a journey and get totally stuck in snow, put on your hazard lights and stay with your car. If there is no danger from passing traffic, you can shelter in your car as long as you're sure it's safe to do so and falling snow won't prevent you from getting out when you need to. Clear snow from the hazard lights from time to time so you can still be spotted by rescue services.

3. If you break down

Here's where it really pays to have rescue cover. If you don't have cover, some providers allow you to join with your first telephone call for an added premium, even if you only get towed to a garage. So, if you're taking the (slightly insane) risk of travelling a long way without breakdown cover, then at least take some providers' phone numbers with you. Alternatively, you could call a directory service for these or get the number of a nearby garage.

  • Put on your hazard lights if your vehicle is causing an obstruction to other traffic; otherwise just put on your side lights if visibility is poor. Don a fluorescent vest and put a warning triangle at least 45 metres behind your vehicle, on the same side of the road – warning triangles are not permitted on motorways, however.
  • Find a roadside telephone If you don't want to pay for rescue cover but you break down on the motorway, the free roadside telephones on the hard shoulder will connect you directly to the Highways Agency who will arrange for your rescue (for which you will then be handed a hefty bill). You'll probably be asked to quote the number on the nearest roadside marker so, if you can, as your car starts to fail try to stop as near as possible to one of these, so you don't have to drag your kids along the hard shoulder or leave them alone behind the barrier while you find one. Don't call 999 for help unless there is a genuine risk to anyone's life.
  • Leave your car close to the motorway barrier Get your car as near to the barrier as possible so you leave some sort of access for emergency services attending other motorists. If you break down on a minor road, try to push it out of the way of other motorists to avoid creating a hold-up or another accident.
  • Get out of the car Exit on the left-hand side of your car, so you keep as far away as possible from passing vehicles, and get behind the barrier, if there is one. Only wait in your if car there is a risk to life going outside it – in a -5°C blizzard with newborn triplets, for example. Use your own judgment. If there is fast-moving traffic, you are safer outside the vehicle and behind a safety barrier than in it, especially in winter when other vehicles are more likely to skid off the road and veer into yours.
  • If you're stranded without a mobile signal If you break down in the middle of nowhere and don't have a signal on your phone, you may have to consider walking to a nearby house or flagging down a passing vehicle. These each carry their risks and depend on weather conditions and the time of day, so you will have to use your common sense to make the right decision. Never leave your children alone in the car unless you think taking them with you poses a very real risk to their safety.

Is your journey essential?

If heavy snow is forecast during your journey, think very seriously about whether travelling is worth the risk.