Winter driving: Cold comfort

Date: Friday, February 3, 2023   |   Author: Ian Shaw

In winter conditions new technology and old techniques combine.

We are well into the season when the weather forecaster tells us all to stay in and batten down the hatches, close the schools and work from home. All well and good, but if people want food delivered to their home, their central heating fixed or their lights still lit, they’ll need van drivers out on the roads. Fortunately, we don’t get the sort of winters the Scandinavians do – which is why they provide most of the world’s champion rally drivers – but there is always enough disruption caused by the weather to give the transport infrastructure a few headaches. At a more local and personal level, it all comes down to vigilance and preparation.

The vehicle

Yes, it’s a cliché, but make sure your vehicle is in top condition for the winter. Consider servicing it earlier than required and at least take advantage of your local garage or main dealer offering winter checks. If not, do your own. Make sure the anti-freeze is up to scratch – via a hydrometer – or sample left in the freezer overnight, likewise screen wash, those electrically heated washer jets, part of the optional winter pack on your new van, are no good if the stuff just freezes as it hits the screen. An old trick was to extend the length of the pipe from screen wash reservoir to the jets and wrap several turns around a radiator hose – not as easy in today’s encapsulated engine bays. Stock up on de-icer spray too. Don’t pour a kettle of even moderately warm water on the screen, sure it will stand it, but that stone chip will not, cracking all the way to the edge. 

Tyres come next, correct pressures firstly. Myths abound here. Yes lowering the pressures spreads out a bigger foot print for traction on soft surfaces – debatable for snow – but means on the salted road the tyres are now dangerously (and illegally) under-inflated. Increasing pressures makes the tyre profile narrower and more rounded, to cut into the snow. Not really, it just means you’ve reduced the footprint on the salted wet tarmac, dangerously lengthening your stopping distance. Don’t bother with either. Better to replace tyres nearing the end of their life and get the deeper tread fitted for winter. Consider traction aids, snow chains are limited to HGVs and some 4x4s, but the ‘tyre sock’ is a highly effective alternative. Easiest to fit on front-wheel drive vehicles and should be removed once on a good road surface – they wear and shred quickly. They are cheap, quick to use and easy to store. 

In Europe, drivers tend to switch between summer and winter tyres more than we do in the UK, but it’s an additional cost worth considering. These are not snow tyres per se, but are designed to perform much better below 7°C, particularly in the wet. Ditto the new generation of multi-climate tyres, more expensive but hugely impressive. 

Then, the humble shovel. Plastic ones are best for snow, light to carry in the vehicle and less damaging to any underbody components you might hit. Finally, embrace another cliché and carry additional outer clothing, food and drink, a torch, some old carpet or sacking to put under the wheels and a tow rope. Keep your sunglasses in the glovebox all year round too. If your satnav has Eco-route in addition to shortest and fastest, use Eco. To an extent it avoids steep hills and goes a slightly flatter (longer) way around, possibly avoiding bottlenecks of stranded vehicles.

The driver

Firstly, going back to the advice from police chiefs to TV newsreaders alike, if you don’t have to travel then don’t. At the very least phone and check that when you arrive on site, at the delivery or at your suppliers, there will be somebody around. Sounds obvious, but plenty of drivers have got stuck on a wild goose chase.

The first and most widespread winter driving hazard is the least attention-grabbing. Low sun. The sudden loss of visibility as you round a bend or crest a hill probably accounts for more single-vehicle crashes than any amount of ice or snow. Be aware of the sun’s position and angle and anticipate if it will suddenly reappear, reduce your speed far more than the bend alone would dictate. Beyond making the road itself invisible, it will certainly mask the presence of joggers and cyclists whose desire to clad themselves in all-black Lycra never ceases to amaze. Daytime running lights on vehicles help you see oncoming traffic at least, if you don’t have them, use dipped beam headlamps all day.

While we’re in the visibility field, we should mention fog. Nobody, no matter how enthusiastic a driver likes fog, and nobody, no matter how experienced, has an answer for it. Drive slow enough that you can see the braking distance ahead. That in itself is probably the hardest task we ever face in winter driving. It is so deceptive, it fools the human brain so easily and our natural trait is to look for a reference point ahead. Unfortunately that is usually the leading vehicle and we naturally draw towards it. Try to drop back until you can only just see its rear fog lights, rather than close up and use it as a pathfinder. Try to look for unlit reference points at the road side to judge your speed and the density of the fog. At night it is 10 times worse. Have the mentality to just arrive late, it’s better than never.

Next we turn our attention to the road surface. One invisible enemy is black ice, a bit of a generic term it’s generally caused by rain freezing on the already cold surface. Hard to see and very difficult to deal with, particularly in the narrow confines of the public road, compared to acres of training skidpan. Observe any oncoming traffic too, why is it so slow out of an innocuous looking bend or dip? Multiply your following gap on the vehicle ahead by 10 times as much when compared to normal.

Finally we come to snow, easy to see but it all looks the same while literally hiding a multitude of sins. Freshly fallen snow actually offers reasonable grip, hard compacted stuff is skating rink standard. For the most part follow in the tyre tracks of those ahead – unless their wheelspin has polished it, in which case you may fair better straddling the tracks and seeking soft fresh snow - especially if tyre socks are fitted. It’s the same for braking, deep soft snow offers more retardation simply due to its resistance and a locked wheel here actually stops better, but modern ABS copes well – and you cannot switch it off these days. Next, consider what’s hidden beneath, it could be ice, it could be tyre-damaging debris, so delving into the deeper snow is not always the answer. Moreover, all the road markings are hidden. The Give Way sign is deliberately upside-down so you can recognise it when covered in snow, so why do so many T-junctions in the UK have the triangle painted on the road surface and no sign? Is that bend at the top of the hill worth taking a run at or is it a main road? Observe traffic ahead, if it’s local, the driver will naturally slow just out of habit if it is a junction. Look for the back of other signs to give an indication, a single streetlamp will often be opposite the mouth of a T-junction.

All the old adages still apply to driving in snow, despite modern ABS and traction systems. Use all the controls gently and progressively, use the highest gear possible to move off and hill climb but reduce speed to a crawl and use the lowest gear to descend. If when braking the ABS comes in, keep braking and the stability control will help too. Always use ‘winter’, ‘slippery’ or ‘off-road’ driving modes in snow. The ABS and traction control systems are modified as is the accelerator pedal control. Some ‘off-road’ modes only work at low speed, so check your vehicle’s specifications for best effect.

If you do get stuck, take time to think, don’t spin the wheels once it’s clear the traction control is not coping. If on a slope, handbrake and in-gear – engine off – and make sure the vehicle is not going to move before getting out. On the flat, shovel snow away from the front-driven wheels and a little ahead, to get a bit of a run-up. On a rear-drive vehicle or 4x4 you’ll need to clear away snow ahead of all wheels. On a hill, shovel behind the driven wheels and roll back onto the cleared road. Either way, use plenty of acceleration on the short cleared section but consider the speed you’ll have once back on the slippery stuff.  In conclusion, take notice of the forecasts, take plenty of additional kit and most of all, take your time.


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