How to drive in snow and ice

Driving in snow and ice causes significant issues for motorists every year, but with preparation you can reduce the risks. Here are our tips to staying safe on the roads. 

Traffic jam as cars drive in snow and ice

You should always take extra care when driving in severe weather conditions.

Everyone knows that the weather in the UK can be pretty changeable at the best of times.

In winter this means that what looks like a pleasant day can quickly deteriorate into heavy rain, fog or snow.

From having the right kit in your car to understanding how difficult it can be to handle your vehicle in icy and snowy conditions, there’s a lot for drivers to think about.

 

How to drive on snow

If you’ve got a journey planned, it’s important to check the forecast and see what the weather might do. This is particularly important if you’ve got a long trip ahead of you.

Allow extra time for your journey when necessary, and if possible avoid heading out onto the roads when you know that it’s going to be snowing.

If you have no choice and need to make a journey in the snow, make sure you follow these steps:

 

Before you drive

  • Plan to stick to major roads where possible as they’re more likely to be gritted
  • Make sure you’re aware of alternative routes in case of accidents
  • Make sure your windows, mirrors, lights and roof are all clear of snow
  • Demist your windscreen if necessary
  • Check your tyres to make sure they have enough tread to grip in the ice and snow
  • Use screenwash that protects to -35 degrees to stop it freezing
  • Make sure your mobile is fully charged and you have the number of your breakdown cover provider
  • Wear warm, appropriate and comfortable footwear.

On the journey

The best advice for driving in harsh weather conditions can be summed up in two words: slow down.

But if you’re in need of more tips, here are a few:

  • Accelerate gently, and get to the highest gear as quickly as you can
  • Check if your car has winter mode and activate it if it does
  • If you don’t have winter mode, move off in second gear to reduce wheel slip
  • Leave as much as 10 times the recommended stopping distance between you and the car in front.
  • Leave plenty of room before an uphill to maintain a constant speed without changing gear
  • Avoid braking downhill unless necessary and use a low gear
  • Brake before turning the wheel when approaching a bend.

If you lose grip on a bend, take your foot off the accelerator and make sure your wheel is facing the direction you want to go.

If you skid, steer into it gently. If you skid to the left steer gently to the left. Don’t slam on the brakes.

Use your dipped headlights in heavy snow to ensure lights on the back of the car are showing.

If visibility drops, turn on your fog lights. Make sure you switch them off again if visibility improves so you don’t dazzle other drivers.

Keep to a sensible speed, drive calmly, and make sure your braking, accelerating and gear changes are all as smooth as possible.

You may also wish to consider snow socks, winter tyres and even snow chains.

 

How to drive on ice

Driving on ice can seem scary, but it’s manageable if you know what you’re doing. If you think there’s a risk of ice on the roads you should:

  • Not travel much as things can go wrong rapidly
  • Avoid stamping on the brakes, harsh acceleration and aggressive steering as these could all make things worse
  • Accelerate slowly and use brakes gently when needed
  • Leave longer stopping distances between you and the car ahead
  • Stick to main roads as much as possible as they’re more likely to be salted and ice-free

Black ice is one of the biggest hazards of winter driving so you need to make sure you know when you’ve hit it and what to do.

Ironically, black ice isn’t really black. It’s a thin layer of transparent ice, which blends in with the colour of the road beneath it.

This means you’re less likely to notice it, meaning you risk driving over it at speed, causing you to skid.

It’s most common in areas such as tunnels and roads under tree cover as they don’t get much sun.

If you do hit black ice, try to stay calm. Don’t brake, but take your foot off the accelerator and try to steer straight until you pass over the ice.

 

Carry a winter breakdown kit

Having your car break down in winter could have much more serious implications than at other times of the year. It’s wise to keep a few essentials in your car in case of mechanical problems – or in case you get stranded in particularly wintry conditions.

Here’s a list of things you may want to keep in your breakdown kit in case of an emergency:

  • Shovel
  • Torch
  • Ice scraper and de-icer
  • Warm clothes and blankets for you and any passengers
  • First-aid kit
  • Jump-start cables
  • Snacks and a warm drink in a thermos
  • Mobile phone charger
  • Reflective warning sign
  • Snow grips for your shoes (or boots) in case you need to walk to safety.

Make sure your breakdown information is saved in your phone and you’ve got  enough charge for the journey.

For more information, check out our guide on what to do if you break down.

 

How to make sure your vehicle is ready for the road

A few simple checks could help you make sure your car is ready to deal with whatever the weather has to throw at it.

If you’re concerned about your brakes or your battery, it’s sensible to invest in a proper service before the bad weather hits.

Here are some of the main factors to consider:

Tyres

Your car needs to retain its grip in wet or icy conditions, so check your tyres are in good working order.

The minimum legal limit for tyre tread is 1.6mm, but at least 3mm of tread is recommended for winter driving. It might also be worth considering winter tyres.

They have a higher silica content, which gives you better grip in the cold and wet.

Simon Hiorns, Retail Director at Protyre says:

"Winter tyres perform better in temperatures below 7°C, improving stopping distances by up to 11 meters in icy conditions.

"If you’re travelling to Europe be sure to check their laws, as some countries require you to drive on winter tyres during the colder months. “

Fuel

It sounds obvious, but check you have more than enough for your journey and remember that your car typically uses up more fuel in colder weather.

Running out of fuel in winter could be potentially disastrous, particularly if you have to face the snow and ice to get refuelled. Keep an eye out for petrol stations and top up early before you have any issues.

Visibility

Make sure all windows and windscreens are free of ice and condensation before you set off.

All-round visibility is very important, and it is not enough to simply scrape a hole in your windscreen to peer out of. As well as increasing the risk of accidents, this could lead to you being stopped by the police.

Check your wiper blades are in good condition as well, and ensure you’ve got enough screen wash and that it will work in colder weather. Lower quality washes could freeze, causing you even more problems.

Lights

It’s not always immediately obvious if one of your car’s lights have stopped working so make sure you’ve checked. You’re likely to need your fog and dipped headlights – so you need to check these too.

Get a friend or family member to assess your brake and reverse lights if necessary.

Consider breakdown cover

Adequate breakdown cover could be crucial at this time of year, and it should give you the peace of mind of knowing you won’t end up stranded in the cold.

Remember to take a contact phone number with you on all journeys, and check your policy so you know exactly what you’re covered for. 

 

Does my insurance cover me in a red weather warning?

Yes, you should be covered by your insurance in the event of a red weather warning. If you’re concerned or just want peace of mind, then get in touch with your car insurance company or check your terms and conditions.

Comprehensive car insurance should cover you for accidents that happen during bad weather. Both comprehensive and third-party insurance should also cover you for damage to someone else's car. 

However, if an accident happens as a result of irresponsible driving – regardless of the weather – then your insurer might not pay out.