Although at the time of writing, 2015 has not proved particularly snowy for most of the UK, there is still time, and it is a perennial problem for British drivers. Despite endless tweeting about infrastructure and road clearance; and little memes about how well the Scandinavians cope with 12 foot of snow; driving in ice and snow can be terrifying, and with our changeable climate, is not something most learners are taught to handle.
Losing control on a snowy or icy road, feeling the tyres lose grip and begin a scary skid is a nightmare experience. Recent winters have seen many accidents, with the government reporting a cost of some £500m daily to businesses through lost work days alone. On the continent, in Russia, Germany and the aforementioned Scandinavian countries, snow tyres are accepted a normal part of winter, but here in the UK many see them as an avoidable luxury. For around £500, a full set of reasonable snow tyres can be a really smart investment, with less than 5% of Britons having them fitted.
In actual fact, winter / snow tyres are useful for various weather conditions, not just snow. Icy temperatures, cold wet roads – manufacturers say they work better than standard drivers any time the temperature dips below 7C. Made with a higher percentage of natural rubber which is less affected by low temperatures, snow tyres remain softer, meaning they are more flexible in cold temperatures. The tread is usually deeper with more ridges to hold the road, and also has a greater number of sipes (indented slots) to increase traction and braking distance.
Winter tyres can be used year round and should have no effect on summer driving if you prefer not to change them seasonally, but can make an excellent investment.
Whether or not you are having snow tyres fitted, there are some other measures to make driving in severe conditions safer.
Firstly, make sure you have a fully charged mobile, warm clothes, high energy food and a shovel plus carpet tiles / cat litter to help you dig out and manage should you get stuck. A first aid kit should be carried in the car at all times, and a reflective triangle will likely be very helpful in the event of a breakdown.
If possible, move from stationary in a higher gear, and maintain higher gears for increased control in slippery conditions. Travelling down hill, keep the speed low before you start, and maintain at a steady slow speed as decreasing suddenly if you find you are going too fast is harder than gently decreasing from a slower starting point.
When driving, maintain a steady, medium speed. This should avoid skids at the same time as avoiding losing momentum when required. Keep revs low, especially when starting off. If you do enter a skid, then take your feet off the pedals and steer instead, using the breaks if you simply cannot steer your way clear, as they can exacerbate a skid.
Choose busier routes which will have been gritted over night where possible. As tempting as it is to use shortcuts and back roads, often they may not yet have been gritted before morning driving, leaving you at greater risk of difficulties.
Leave a much greater stopping distance between you and the car in front, and don’t rely solely on your brakes to stop you. In a skid, they may not help very much, so make sure a safe distance is in front at all times.
If the worst happens and you do breakdown in heavy snow, stay close to the car, as snow can be very disorienting; until visibility increases and it is safe to find help. If you are stuck, use old carpet or cat litter to provide traction and try to dig out. By all means run the engine to keep warm, but for no more than 15 minutes each hour. Check very carefully that the exhaust is clear, as a blocked exhaust can lead to fumes entering the car which can build up and are highly toxic. Call for help as quickly as you can, wrap up tight and stay safe.