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1 November, 2010

Winter Driving Advice: Driving in Snow and Icy Weather

It appears that winter has finally arrived.  Cold, frosty mornings have turned to snow covered hills and mountains for a large majority of us.  While this is well received by those of us who like to ‘play’ in the snow, these difficult winter driving conditions present a whole new set of problems for motorists driving in snow.

With this in mind, there are a few things to consider that will help reduce the level of risk these conditions present.

Is your journey necessary?

In winter, especially if the weather doesn’t look good, it is advisable to check the local forecast before setting out.  If snow or ice is forecast, the best advice is; don’t drive unless your journey is essential.

Planning for your journey

If you consider that your journey is necessary, it is useful to carry the following items, in case you get stuck or your vehicle breaks down:

Thermometer covered with snow

Photo by kuyman

  • De-icer / ice scraper
  • Anti freeze
  • A torch
  • Warm drink and emergency food
  • Warm clothing and boots
  • A first aid kit
  • A fully charged mobile phone
  • Jump leads
  • A spade or shovel

Before setting out

You should give yourself plenty of time to clear the car of any snow or ice.  This includes clearing all your windows so that you can see clearly all around.  Clear the snow from the bonnet and roof so that it doesn’t fly off and cause a danger to other road users.

You should also ensure all lights are clean and free from snow so they can be seen by other road users.

You should also wait until your demister and heater are working well enough to keep the whole of the inside of your windscreen and rear window clear.

Snowman on bonnet of car

Photo by soundfromwayout


When clearing the screen, take care not to damage the wiper blades as these may have been frozen to the screen.  Never use boiling water to clear the windscreen; you could break the glass.  Instead, use water that is barely lukewarm or even cold – this is still warmer than ice and will start the defrosting process.

Driving in snow

If you find yourself driving in falling or freshly fallen snow, there are some key safety issues to remember:

  • You should increase the gap between you and vehicle in front – the stopping distances can easily be ten times longer in snow and icy conditions
  • It is advisable for you to test your brakes, very gently, from time to time.  However, make sure you check your mirrors before braking.  Snow packed around the wheels and brake linkages can affect steering and braking
  • If the adverse weather conditions mean that your visibility is in any way reduced, you should use your headlights – this will alert other road users to your presence
  • Be prepared to clear the windscreen by hand.  Your wipers, even with the aid of the heater, may not be able to sweep the snow clear.  If you do need to clear the windscreen by hand, you should stop in a safe place, where possible.  It is also a good idea to check your lights and indicators at the same time as they may also need to be cleared.  Snow can collect and pack around them, making it difficult for other road users to see you.
Red handprint in snow

Photo by Chris Campbell

Starting off in snow

If you have to stop in snow, it can be difficult to start again.  Therefore, it is advisable to leave a bigger gap than usual between you and the vehicle in front.  To reduce the chance of wheel-spin, you should use the highest gear possible with light acceleration.

If you experience wheel-spin when you’re starting off in deeper snow, don’t race the engine because the wheels will dig in further.  Try to move the car slightly backwards and then forwards out of the rut.  Use the highest gear you can to move off.


In these conditions, it’s worthwhile carrying a spade and some old sacks.  These can be useful to help you get going when you’re stuck in snow.

Snow chains are available which can be fitted over existing wheels and tyres.  These will help you avoid getting stuck and also reduce the danger of skidding.  There are also ‘M & S’ (mud and snow) tyres available.  These have a tread pattern that is specifically designed for these conditions.

Stopping on snow or ice

If you do need to brake, ensure this is done gently otherwise you risk ‘locking’ the wheels.  If the front wheels lock, you cannot steer, meaning you cannot keep yourself out of trouble.

It is advisable to use a lower gear earlier than normal;

Allow your speed to fall and use the brake pedal gently and early to keep your speed under control.

Red road sign covered with snow

Photo by canong2fan

For vehicles without anti-lock braking systems (ABS), in slippery conditions you should repeatedly apply and release the brakes to slow the vehicle down and enable you to keep control.  This will provide a certain amount of steering control.  ABS systems may reduce the risk of the vehicle instability when braking on snow and ice.  However, they cannot compensate for poor judgement or excessive speed.   They will not help your tyres stay in contact with the road surface in ice or snow.


Ultimately, if you do find that your journey is necessary or even unavoidable, it is up to you, the driver, to drive with great care, even if the roads have been treated.  Anticipate not only how a change in conditions affects your driving, but also how they affect other road users.  Keep in mind that conditions can change very quickly over very short distances.  Therefore it is important to stay alert and always be prepared to slow down and, if necessary, stop, to keep yourself and other road users safe.