Along with cosy nights in and enjoying a hot chocolate, winter can also mean severe weather, bad visibility and poor driving conditions. According to our AA-Populus motoring panel, in 2018, the year of the 'Beast from the East', 21% of AA members couldn't use their car because local roads where they live were impassable. More than 12% ventured out, but got into some sort of difficulty - either getting stuck for more than an hour, having to turn back when they saw how bad conditions were, or simply wishing they'd stayed at home because it was so dangerous.
Deciding whether to drive and journey planning
Driving during bad weather should start with the basic question: do I need to leave the house? If you can avoid driving when conditions outside are unpredictable and potentially dangerous, you should. And if you can plan around forecast weather warnings, you might be able to avoid the worst of it.
But if you have to be on the roads when the snow’s falling and the temperature’s dropping, here’s some things you can do to stay as safe as possible.
Before you start your drive
Plan your journey – by preparing your route beforehand, using our AA route planner, sticking to main roads (which are more likely to be gritted and cleared) and keeping an eye on any traffic updates, you stand a better chance of avoiding an incident or serious delay.
Get your car in shape for the snow – much like we bundle ourselves up and make sure we’re physically ready for the weather, your car needs some hands-on preparation too.
- Factor in enough time to de-ice your windscreen inside and out – it’s illegal to drive without full vision.
- Check that your windscreen wipers are in good working order to keep the windscreen clear and your visibility unaffected.
- Make sure your lights are all working and clearly visible (you may need to clean the lenses from time to time – read our advice on keeping your car clean).
- Make sure you have plenty of fuel for the journey, bearing in mind that you could get stuck and need to keep warm.
We’ve got car maintenance tips to keep your car running as it should year round, but make sure your car is in good condition during winter. Breaking down in bad weather could mean you're harder to find and left in hazardous weather for longer. In case you do crash or break down on snowy roads, remember to keep a winter kit handy.
Tips for driving in snow
- Be gentle on the throttle, avoiding any harsh acceleration which is likely to cause wheel spin.
- Pull away in second gear, easing your foot off the clutch gently to avoid wheel spin.
- To slow down, use engine braking through the gears – just touch the brake pedal lightly to show brake lights to others behind.
- If you're approaching a hill, drop well back or wait until it’s clear of traffic so you won’t have to stop part way up. Keep a constant speed and try to avoid changing gear on the hill.
- Use a low gear and try to avoid braking. Leave as much room as you can to the car in front.
- If you drive an automatic car, check your manual to see if your car has a setting for icy conditions.
- Use your headlights in heavy snow. Daytime running lights won't be enough, and there’ll be no lighting at the back of your car. You’ll need to make sure you can see ahead and cars behind you know you’re there.
- Think about your current driving environment. Just because the conditions might have improved on main roads, country roads or bridges might still be hazardous due to less traffic or because they've not been gritted. When you're driving in icy conditions or snow, you should always be more cautious for at least a few days after.
Black ice is a thin layer of ice on the road surface that’s usually transparent. Because it's very difficult for drivers to see, it can be one of the biggest dangers of winter driving. It’s important you know how to react if you hit a patch of black ice on the road. Black ice is caused by rain falling on frozen surfaces. It tends to form on parts of the road that don’t get much sun – tree-lined routes and tunnels – as well as on bridges, overpasses and the road beneath overpasses.
When it's cold and there's a risk of ice:
- If it's slippery, do everything slowly as things can go wrong very quickly.
- Avoid harsh braking and acceleration or aggressive steering; reduce your speed smoothly and use brakes gently.
- If you do hit black ice, keep calm and avoid sudden or aggressive manoeuvres – don’t hit the brakes but lift of the accelerator fully and try to keep the steering straight, allowing the car to pass over the ice.
Stopping distance in snow
In bad weather conditions, remember that a car’s stopping distance will be longer. Also, if snow is falling heavily it will reduce how far ahead you can see, so you should drive more slowly and give yourself longer to react. Secondly, braking distances can be doubled in wet conditions – and increased by at least 10 times on snow or ice.
Will I need winter tyres?
Check our full guide about winter tyres.
Most drivers will get some safety benefit from fitting winter tyres because of the improved grip they provide in cold and wet conditions – they're not just for snow and ice. But they're an expensive option and not without hassle as you'll have to store a set of tyres and swap them over twice a year.
As an alternative to winter tyres, consider 'all-season tyres' which can be left on all year round.
Or if you live in a rural area where snow's common but roads rarely gritted, then a set of snow chains to get you to the nearest main road might be the answer.