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Don't leave yourself in the cold. Winter motoring requires special care and a little preparation if you're to avoid a breakdown or accident.

Battery/electrics

  • Lights, heaters and windscreen wipers put high demands on the car battery. If the car is driven mainly in dark rush-hour trips, the battery will give out eventually.
  • Batteries rarely last longer than five years, so replacing them near the end of their life can save a lot of time and inconvenience at the side of the road when they finally fizzle out.
  • Avoid running car electrics any longer than necessary - turn the heater fan down and switch the heated rear window off once windows are clear.
  • If the car stands idle most of the weekend a regular overnight trickle charge is a good idea to give the battery a chance to revive.
  • When you're starting up the car ensure that non-essentials, like lights, rear screen heater and wipers are turned off.
  • Use the starter in short five-second bursts if the engine doesn't start quickly, leaving thirty seconds between attempts to allow the battery to recover.

Anti-freeze

  • Anti-freeze costs only a few pounds but a cracked engine block will cost hundreds of pounds to repair.
  • The majority of modern cars use longlife antifreeze and it is absolutely essential that you don't mix these with other types as this can cause a sludge to form in the engine. If you're not sure what type of antifreeze is in your car, take it to a dealer.
  • Traditional Glycol based antifreeze should be changed at least every two years.
  • A 50-50 mix of antifreeze and water in the cooling system is needed in winter. This gives maximum protection down to -34 centigrade, and without it, severe engine damage costing hundreds of pounds can occur.
  • If the fan belt squeals continually as soon as the engine is started, that is a sign the water pump is frozen. The cylinder block could be frozen too. Stop the engine immediately and allow it to thaw out. This may take several days unless you can get the car moved to a heated garage.
  • Most commonly, it is just the radiator that freezes. The car will begin to overheat within a few miles of home, as the coolant is unable to circulate. Stop the car immediately and allow the radiator to thaw.

Vision

  • Through the winter months dazzle from the low sun can be a particular problem.
  • Improve vision significantly by making sure that the windscreen is clean - inside and out. Scratches, abrasion and chips on the outside can also worsen the dazzling effect of the sun.
  • Use airconditioning for faster demisting and to reduce condensation on cold windows
  • Keep the windscreen and other windows clear - if your vision is obscured through dirt, snow or even sticker-infested car windows you could face a hefty fine.
  • Check windscreen wipers and replace if necessary.
  • Make sure that wipers are switched off in the park position when leaving the car where there's risk of freezing. If you don't and the blades freeze to the screen then damage to the blades or wiper motor could result when you turn the ignition on.
  • Windscreen washer fluid should be topped up and treated with a proprietary additive to reduce the chance of freezing in frosty weather. Don't use ordinary engine anti-freeze as it will damage paintwork.
  • Clear snow from the roof as well as from windows. Snow piled up on the roof can fall onto the windscreen obscuring your view and can also be a hazard to other road users.

Visibility

  • Check that all bulbs are working and that headlights are clean and aimed correctly.
  • You must use headlights when visibility is seriously reduced. You may also use front or rear fog lights but these must be switched off when visibility improves as they can dazzle other road users and obscure your brake lights.
  • Keep the number plates clean too as you can be fined if they are dirty and illegible.

Tyres

  • Check all tyres for condition, pressure and tread depth. At least 3mm of tread is recommended for winter motoring and certainly no less than 2mm.
  • Don't reduce tyre pressures to get more grip - it doesn't work but does reduce stability.
  • Check you have a jack and wheel brace, that they work and that you know how to change a wheel if necessary.
  • It's rare to need snow chains unless you live in an isolated area hit with heavy snow and where the roads are not cleared. They must be removed to drive on a metalled road without a reasonable covering of snow.
  • Buy snow chains from a specialist supplier to ensure that they're right for your vehicle and practice fitting them in good, dry conditions.
  • Consider changing to winter tyres - these have a higher silicone content in the tread which prevents it hardening at lower temperatures and gives better grip in cold, wet conditions as a result.

Preparing to travel

  • Get up at least ten minutes early to give you time to prepare the car.
  • Don't drive off like a tank-commander, with a tiny hole cleared in your windscreen. Clear all windows of snow and ice using a scraper and de-icer.
  • Use a cigarette lighter to warm a key for a frozen lock. Don't breathe on the lock as it will just freeze.
  • Besides an ice scraper and de-icer, it's worth carrying a mobile phone with fully charged battery, torch, First Aid kit, tow rope, blankets, warm coat and boots, jump leads, snow shovel, warning triangle, an old sack or rug (to put under the wheels if you do get stuck) and water repellent spray.
  • Plan routes to favour major roads which are more likely to have been gritted
  • Put safety before punctuality when the bad weather closes in. Whilst it's always a good idea to allow extra time in winter for your journey, drivers must accept the inevitability of being late for work if they are caught up in an unexpected delay.

Driving in snow/ice

  • Stopping distances are ten times longer in ice and snow.
  • Gentle manoeuvres are the key to safe driving.
  • Wear comfortable, dry shoes: cumbersome, snow-covered boots will slip on the pedals.
  • Select second gear when pulling away, easing your foot off the clutch gently to avoid wheel-spin.
  • Try to maintain a constant speed, choosing the most suitable gear in advance to avoid having to change down while climbing a hill.
  • When driving downhill, choose third or fourth gear to prevent skidding.
  • Always apply brakes gently. Release them and de-clutch if the car skids.
  • If you do get stuck, straighten the steering and clear the snow from the wheels. Put a sack or old rug in front of the driving wheels to give the tyres some grip. Once on the move again, try not to stop until you reach firmer ground.

Driving in floods/standing water

  • Only drive through water if you know how deep it is.
  • Drive slowly and steadily to avoid creating a bow wave. Allow on-coming traffic to pass first and test your brakes as soon as you can after leaving the water.
  • Don't try driving through fast-moving water such as at a flooded bridge approach - your car could easily be swept away.
  • Driving fast through standing water is dangerous - tyres lose contact with the road and you lose steering control in what's known as 'aquaplaning'. Watch out for standing water, trying to avoid it if you can, and adjust your speed to the conditions. If you do experience aquaplaning, hold the steering wheel lightly and lift off the throttle until the tyres regain grip.
  • Driving fast through standing water is inconsiderate - driving through water at speeds above a slow crawl can result in water being thrown onto pavements, soaking pedestrians or cyclists. You could face a hefty fine and between three and nine penalty points if the police believe you were driving without reasonable consideration to other road users.
  • Driving fast through standing water can cause expensive damage - the air intake on many cars is low down at the front of the engine bay and it only takes a small quantity of water sucked into the engine to cause serious damage. All engines are affected but turbo-charged and diesel engines are most vulnerable.
  • As you drive slowly through standing water keep the engine revving by slipping the clutch otherwise water in the exhaust could stall the engine.
  • If you break down in heavy rain don't prop the bonnet open while you wait for the patrol to arrive - the engine will be more difficult to start again if the electrics are all rain-soaked.