Coping With Extreme Weather

Learning the lessons from a severe winter

We should all think more about how we can cope better with severe weather in future

The severe and prolonged snow and ice of December and January taught us many lessons and serves as a reminder that many of us, individuals and organisations, should think more about how we can cope better in future with similar conditions.

Long delays

The most important lesson was that drivers often faced long delays not because of the weather conditions alone but because other vehicles ahead of them had lost control or were unable to proceed – a jack-knifed lorry prevents everything from moving including those equipped with winter tyres or chains.

Everyone faces the risk of having to wait, possibly for several hours, until the blockage and other traffic ahead have been cleared.

So the first rule of winter driving remains that you must make sure that you are equipped to keep warm, fed and watered in a long delay – and if needed that any medicines are carried. A fully charged mobile phone allows you to keep in touch, and to call for help if you need to.

Being prepared for a lengthy hold up isn't just important in winter.

Surviving long delays on the roads »

Record number of breakdowns

In the four week period over Christmas and the New Year, starting on 17 December, the AA rescued more than half a million drivers – more than double its normal workload – making it the busiest winter ever for breakdowns in the AA's 105-year history.

During this period the AA saw at least four record-breaking days:

  • Busiest day for 10 years – Monday 21 December (>22,000 breakdowns)
  • Busiest day ever – Monday 4th January, 2010 (>25,000 breakdowns)
  • Busiest night in 25 years – Monday 21 December (>1,000 breakdowns)
  • Busiest Christmas Day for 20 years (>4,000 breakdowns)

Lessons for Drivers

Many AA Members have asked about the benefits of winter tyres

Winter tyres

The most common theme in questions asked by AA members during the recent cold spell was 'winter tyres' – are they worth having and why don't we follow other countries and make it compulsory to use them in the winter.

Winter tyres certainly give much improved traction and braking in cold/winter conditions compared with summer tyres but issues of cost and practicality would preclude the introduction of a national requirement to fit them. They're a very sensible choice for some drivers though.

More about winter tyres in the UK »

Snow Chains and other similar accessories

If you live in an isolated area and have to travel on untreated roads then chains can make good sense but they're impractical if all you face is 100m or so of untreated residential road at the beginning of your journey.

Most major roads will have been cleared of snow, and it is illegal to cause damage to the road surface – using chains on roads unprotected by snow and ice risks damage to the road, tyre and to the chains themselves which must therefore be removed as soon as you can see the road surface.

Some other alternatives to snow chains may have legal problems of their own, especially when used on clear roads – for example, if your tread is covered, is your tyre legal?

More about using snow chains (and requirements for popular ski resorts) »

Avoiding a breakdown

Many breakdown calls were from drivers stuck in snow but many others could have been avoided:

  • Flat batteries – can be avoided by starting the car and running it up to normal temperature regularly when not being used
  • Frozen doors/locks – a car left under a blanket of snow and ice unused for days will be harder to get into than one that's cleaned and warmed up regularly
  • Frozen engines – with insufficient antifreeze the coolant in a car left unused in extreme cold weather will freeze potentially causing damage to the engine costing thousands of pounds to repair

Don't travel unless absolutely necessary

When road conditions are really bad you'll often hear the Police and others advise drivers not to travel unless it is 'absolutely necessary', but what does this mean?

Ultimately this has to be a personal decision – every driver will have a different view of what's 'necessary' and this view may change as a period of bad weather goes on.

Employers, and those who give traffic advice should learn from recent events and review the advice they give and the procedures that employees are expected to follow.

Perhaps roads at high risk should be closed or employees should be encouraged to work from home rather than to struggle to drive to work?

Lessons for Government

Local authorities need to be able to replenish salt used

Grit and salt

Many local highway authorities were caught out by the cold spell, particularly with regard to salt stocks. In future they need to make sure that they don't only have enough salt for a cold spell but for a prolonged cold spell. They also need to be able to replenish the salt used, even if the whole country is affected.

What the AA said about salt ahead of the cold snap »


When water in cracks in the road surface freezes it expands, breaking up the road surface and this, combined with the passage of vehicles, causes potholes.

The cold spell may have led to millions of potholes and resulting concerns about possible damage to vehicles, road safety and the long term durability of the road infrastructure.

AA calls for emergency funding to deal with crumbling roads »

Pothole watch on the Zone »

Pothole stories on the Zone »

Join the discussion in the AA zone


3 February 2010