Car Insurance Collision Claims Snowball

Should you fit winter tyres?

The icy spell before Christmas led to a big spike in car insurance claims, as people struggled through the snow to get to work or away to relatives. At times the volume of claims coming into the AA Insurance claims centre in Cardiff was twice the number that would be expected for a normal December – over 70 per cent of claims related to collisions in snow or ice.

The exceptional wintry weather has led to suggestions that drivers should fit winter tyres. Indeed, thousands have done just that, clearing most garages and tyre depots of stocks. But they don't come cheap: it will cost at least £500 to equip your car with them.

Most users of winter tyres keep them on a spare set of steel wheels (rather than the alloy wheels that the car came with). Sometimes this requires a slightly smaller diameter wheel to accommodate the larger profile of a winter tyre, so giving the same overall 'on the road' diameter. In this way swapping between summer and winter tyres is quite straightforward.

However, this practice has led to some confusion over whether insurers consider it to be a 'modification' that attracts an additional premium.

Simon Douglas, director of AA Insurance says: "Provided you are fitting wheels and tyres that meet the car manufacturer's specification – you can confirm this by checking your car handbook or with your local main dealer – and they are professionally fitted, AA Insurance doesn't consider this to be a modification.

"This shouldn't be an issue for other insurers either."

In some European countries that have predictable winter snow, fitting winter tyres is obligatory. Germany is the latest country to require them.

Winter tyres have a bold tread pattern, and are made from a rubber compound that performs better at temperatures below 7°C. Tests show that cars fitted with them stop in a much shorter distance on snow and ice than those with conventional tyres. They also perform well on wet or muddy road surfaces. If such tyres are to be used, it is vital that all four wheels are so fitted.

However, Simon Douglas adds that fitting winter tyres or snow chains won't stop cars that aren't so fitted from sliding into you, underlining the importance of keeping a greater distance than usual between you and the car in front.

Slither, slide, bump – the claims come in

Whether you have winter tyres or not, it is important to take extra care when driving on snow- and ice-covered roads, and the AA offers extensive advice on winter driving. Nevertheless, thousands have come a cropper in the extreme weather.

An analysis of claims taken by the AA's Cardiff call centre shows that the most common snow- and ice-related incidents are collisions within traffic. Common among these are tail-end crashes at traffic lights or roundabouts, or sliding on bends into oncoming vehicles. The second highest count of claims was for bumps with unattended parked cars.

Simon Douglas says that snow and ice brings a startling variety of collisions. "While hitting other cars is by far the most common, also high on the list of mishaps is striking snow-covered kerbs, which can cause expensive damage to wheels and suspension.

"Trees, lamp posts, telegraph poles, barriers, bollards, grass embankments, walls, fences and hedges have also all brought unfortunate drivers to an abrupt and chilly halt. Several have also ended up in ditches – one driver thinking his car was OK but then witnessing it sink into the water as the ice gave way."

Some accidents seem to be just bad luck. One customer left his parked car only to find that it had slid down the hill into a fence. Another started to reverse her car out of the drive and skidded into the path of an oncoming snow plough, while two others returned to their abandoned cars to find that snow ploughs had wrecked them.

Some customers even found that the weight of snow on their garage or carport caused the structure to collapse on top of their cars.

Crashing boar

Possibly the most bizarre claim was for a customer who tried to avoid a 'large animal' on an icy country road, but skidded on ice and hit it. The animal turned out to be a wild boar, which ran away but the car was very badly damaged.

Simon Douglas adds: "When there is widespread snow and ice, the proportion of claims where the icy conditions are a contributory factor increases significantly.

"Fortunately, most people are driving more slowly than usual in such conditions, so the majority of claims are at a relatively slow speed and damage tends to be less costly to repair. Another blessing of these slow-speed collisions is that the number of personal injury claims goes down too."

Quote … unquote – some insurance claim highlights

  • Slid down drive and hit my own garage, damaging my wife's car inside
  • Had to abandon my car and returned next morning to find the side had been taken out by a snow plough
  • Hit a pile of frozen snow cleared off the road. It was as solid as a concrete block and completely wrecked my car
  • My car slid down a hill on its own – I think it was nudged by another car. It hit a fence
  • I reversed, skidded and hit side of spouse [presumably in her car]
  • Skidded on black ice, hit the kerb, bounced off a tree, hit another car and ended up in the ditch. The accident cause a multiple collision

AA winter driving advice

  • Heed police advice, and don't drive unless you must in badly affected areas
  • Make sure your tyres are properly inflated and have plenty of tread. If worn replace them. The AA recommends 3mm minimum tread depth during winter – the legal minimum is 1.6mm
  • If you fit winter tyres (not studded tyres), which perform better in snow and ice, there should be no increase in premium and no need to tell your insurer, provided they meet your car manufacturer's specifications, and they are fitted by a competent garage or tyre centre. Winter tyres are mandatory in some European countries
  • Drive slowly in a high a gear as possible, which provides better traction. Allow plenty of space between your car and the vehicle in front (a 10-second gap on icy roads), and avoid sudden braking, acceleration or steering movements
  • Don't be tempted to leave your car warming up on the drive unattended – dozens of cars have already been stolen off drives this winter. A claim for theft of an unattended car with the keys in it is unlikely to be successful