There are many reasons why it’s not a good idea to drive in snow. Statistically, the amount of road accidents in the UK trebles in snowy and icy conditions.
Car batteries can often go flat leaving the driver stranded if the vehicle has been standing for some time. Plus, getting stuck on a snow covered road all makes for good reasons to stay at home and not take the risks.
However, if it is essential that you venture out in snowy conditions, there are some vehicle preparation tips that if taken, can help to keep your car in top condition mechanically which will in turn increase reliability and safety whilst driving. Also explained is how to drive in snow safely using various techniques from driving professionals.
Driving in snow precautions
Precautions taken before driving in snow will impact on how your car performs on snow and ultimately increase your safety. Listed are some simple tips.
1. Car battery – Keeping your car battery in top condition is important in helping to ensure your car will start. Having a flat battery is actually more likely in modern cars that old due to the extra electrical load modern cars demand from the battery. Your car will recharge the battery but only on long journeys. Frequent short journeys maintain a partial charge only in your battery which decreases its lifespan and in cold weather, the lack of power may render your car unable to start.
If you only take short car journeys, use a trickle car battery charger. Some versions run off of solar power and can even be plugged into your cigarette lighter to help maintain battery life and power. See car battery life and maintenance for further information.
2. Clearing snow off car roof – Is it illegal to drive with snow on your car? Technically it’s not illegal to drive with snow on your car although the potential dangers may see you issued with a ticket and fine. Firstly, if there’s a build-up of snow on your car roof, as your interior begins to warm, the interior roof will warm and in turn begin to melt the connecting layer snow which is sticking it to your roof.
As you brake, all of this snow build-up could find itself covering your windscreen.
Also as you begin to build up speed, this snow will blow off from your car, heading directly into the windscreen of the vehicle behind, making it hazardous for them. Police officers can, at their discretion, issue a ticket if someone is creating a real danger.
3. Check your tyres – Keep tyre pressures at the recommended pressure outlined by the car owners manual. Whilst lowering or raising tyre pressure in a particular weather condition may be of benefit, if a road surface condition changes, it could be hazardous due to less control of the vehicle. When driving on snow, it is recommended that you have a minimum of 3 mm tread depth to allow for the dispersal of snow within the tread. See tyre legal limit for information on legal and safe tyres.
Winter tyres are an option to think about. UK motorists are yet to fully embrace the winter tyre with only around 4% being sold throughout the tyre industry. But do winter tyres work? Winter tyres are designed to work more efficiently in cold weather.
The higher rubber content compared to conventional tyres means they remain ‘stickier’ allowing for a stronger grip and the extra channels and grooves in the tread allows for better dispersal of water or snow, providing a more efficient grip. On the downside however, they are more expensive than the conventional tyre.
4. Allow more time – One of the most important aspects of preparing to drive in snow is to allow extra time for the journey. A common reason for accidents when driving on snow is inappropriate speed for the conditions. Reducing the temptation to drive too fast due to the stress of being late will make for much safer journey.
5. Windows and lights – Ensure all lights are cleared of snow so that other drivers can see your indicators and brake lights. Using lukewarm water to remove snow and ice from windows is a chemical-free and cheap alternative to de-icer. Depending on the temperature however, it may simply re-freeze almost immediately and may form ice on the road surface. Lukewarm water is unlikely to crack the windscreen although the risk of cracking is increased to an already damaged windscreen. To prevent ice on the windscreen, place a sheet or cardboard over the screen before leaving the car at night.
6. In the event you breakdown or get stuck in snow – Take along a fully charged mobile phone, extra warm clothes and blankets. Keeping a full fuel tank will allow you to keep the engine running for long periods if you get stuck in snow and keep heating on to keep warm. In bad weather, it’s often necessary to take alternative routes due to roads being blocked. A full tank should ensure there is no risk of running out of fuel.
Moving off in snow
How you move off in snow depends on the type of tyres you have, the condition of them and the type of snow or ice you are moving off from. Try moving off in 1st gear as usual, releasing the clutch very slowly, though you may find that you encounter wheel spin when moving off in snow. If so, try the procedure again in 2nd gear, again ensuring that you raise the clutch very slowly. Moving off in snow in a manual requires a good level of clutch control, especially around the clutch biting point area. For moving off in snow in an automatic, use the ‘W’ setting which is essentially the same as moving off in 2nd gear.
How to drive in snow
Now that you and your car are prepared for driving in snow, we need to look at the best method for how to drive in snow. Many accidents happen when driving in snow in exactly the same way as when driving on a perfectly dry road. This is when your vehicle needs to change direction or speed and if travelling too fast for the road surface, loss of traction will occur. In snow and ice, a vehicle takes much longer to stop.
1. Stopping distances in snow and ice
A vehicle traveling at 30mph on a dry road will take around 23 metres / 75 feet to stop using a combination of thinking distance (time it takes to react) and actual stopping distance (amount of time it take the vehicle to stop under braking). Stopping distances in snow and ice can be anywhere from 4 to 10 times this amount. This of course various depending such things as condition of road surface, tyres used, weight of vehicle etc.
Anticipation and planning is an essential skill that all drivers must possess and is a skill you will have acquired whilst learning to drive and used to pass the driving test. Due to the increased stopping distances, you will need to anticipate any potential hazard that will require your vehicle slowing down or changing direction much sooner than on dry roads. Taking action or ‘planning’ will require slowing down much sooner than usual.
2. Braking in snow
Using the brake whilst driving on snow can lead to a loss of control. Increasing these driving skills will reduce the use of braking, allowing your vehicle to slow down naturally. In snow, you will need to use engine brake. What is engine brake? As you take your foot off the accelerator and begin to slow down, gradually run down through the gears as you get slower without using the brake pedal, this is called engine brake. See what is engine braking for other advantages of using engine braking.
You will of course still need to use your brakes albeit much less than usual. When braking in snow, use the brakes very gently. If you do find yourself in a situation where you need to stop within a short distance, use a technique call cadence braking if your vehicle doesn’t have anti-lock brakes (ABS) fitted. Cadence braking essentially mimics what ABS does.
Instead of hitting the brakes and keeping your foot on the pedal, apply pressure, release, apply pressure and release, using this technique until you stop. This helps to prevent the wheels from locking which in turn allows you to keep control by allowing the car to steer and change direction – much of which is impossible if the wheels are locked.
3. Does ABS work in snow
ABS is highly effective on dry and even wet roads. ABS does not work as effectively on snow and ice however. Certain car manufactures even suggest turning off ABS when driving on snow and ice due to the possibility of it actually increasing the vehicles stopping distance. Regardless of whether you feel ABS benefits in icy conditions or not, the problems often come in the form of a false sense of security.
No matter how efficient a braking system is, there’s always going to be minimal traction between a tyre and ice and driving too fast will always result in the same conclusion. The safest method is to use the techniques listed on this page to assume you are driving in snow without ABS, regardless of whether you do or not. Continued reading on Anti-lock brakes (ABS)
4. Steering in snow
Try to steer gently and slowly if possible. The higher the steering angle, the slower you need to travel as the front tyres will lose traction if traveling too fast. You can’t steer and brake at the same time, especially on snow, so ensure you have used engine brake to gain the correct speed before steering round a corner. When accelerating round a corner, feather the accelerator very gently as rear wheel drive cars in the snow are particularly vulnerable to loss of control at the rear.
Controlling a skid in snow
There are many techniques for controlling a skid on snow or ice. Some advanced techniques even include accelerating – which in some circumstances can work. For the average driver however, it’s best to keep things simple.
Always of course try to avoid a skid in the first place. Much greater concentration is needed when driving in snow or ice. Use engine brake as much as possible and approach a turn at the speed you intend on taking it and never brake whilst in the turn.
If you do find yourself getting into a skid, remember that you can’t brake and steer at the same time and on snow or ice, it’s often best to try and control the skid and not stop as stopping is often not an option until it’s too late.
If you find your car going in a different direction in which you are steering, keep your wheels pointed in the direction you intend on taking and take your foot off the brakes, this will give your wheels a better chance of gaining traction as you are not braking. Once you feel control and traction is returning, brake very gently.
If traveling in a straight line and you have left braking too late, you have two options. Slamming on the brakes can help as it can build up a wedge of snow in front of the tyres that helps to slow you down, but you will not have the ability to steer. If you need to avoid hitting something in a straight line, you are better off coming off the brakes and trying to steer your vehicle away from the object you are approaching.
Driving in snow safely
It’s perfectly normal to have a fear of driving in snow considering the risks involved. Driving in snow safely requires taking the correct precautions before setting off as listed on this page and by having a little confidence in knowing what you’re doing. Of course it’s always best to avoid driving in snow if at all possible, but if you really must, then a short ‘driving in snow course’ may be just the thing.
Driving in snow course
As winter really sets in and the snow begins to fall, contact a local driving instructor and ask them to take you on a driving lesson in the snow. Although there isn’t any official driving in snow course, a short 2 hour course from a driving instructor will increase your skills and confidence significantly. The instructor will help you with moving off on snow, ideal following distances, braking techniques such as cadence braking, progressive braking and engine braking and steering techniques.
Driving in snow emergency kit
The all-important driving in snow emergency kit is essential in the event of a breakdown or getting stuck. The kit should comprise of:
- Fully charged mobile phone
- Snow shovel or spade
- Extra clothes / blankets
- Food and drink
- Windscreen ice scraper
- First aid supplies
Other recommended items for your snow kits are:
- Jumper cables
- Carpet strips, sand or kitty litter to place under tyres for traction
- Reflective triangle
- Full tank of fuel
Dangers of gritted / salted roads
Gritted roads can in fact be more dangerous in certain circumstances than unsalted roads. Firstly, it takes time for road salt to become effective. It may appear that all the snow and ice has gone, but there could be a thin layer still present. Rain can also wash the grit off, leaving the road surface susceptible to freezing and ice. In low temperatures of around -7 to -15 degrees, road salt can become ineffective, again leaving the road surface vulnerable to freezing.
Another common reason for road accidents on gritted roads is a drivers false sense of security. A driver may think that because the road has been gritted, it is then perfectly safe to drive at normal speed as though no snow or ice is present. This may put drivers at risk due to any of the reasons above, but also due to main roads only being gritted and drivers entering side roads at too higher speed.
Driving an automatic in snow
One of the main benefits of driving a manual in snow is the ability to use engine braking which significantly reduces the need to use the foot brake. Driving an automatic in snow can be more of a challenge due to less control over braking.
When driving an automatic in snow, slow down by gently feathering the brake and as you reach around 15mph select ‘2’. By selecting this, it will increase engine brake allowing you to slow down safely without as much use of the foot brake.
Car stuck in snow
If you find yourself with a car stuck in snow, you will need something for your drive wheels to gain traction on – this is where your snow emergency kit comes in. Straighten your wheels and clear the snow from the wheels for several feet in distance using your shovel. Place carpet strips, cat litter or anything that your tyres can gain traction on under the drive wheels. This should be sufficient to get you going again.
Engine braking can also be used in other driving situations and over time, if done correctly can increase fuel economy and reduce wear on a vehicle. See what is engine braking for further information.