About a dozen years ago, I was driving home for Christmas in a rented Honda Civic. The snow had started about a week earlier and the temperature had plummeted in the past few days. The roads were all bordered by high snow drifts and the tree boughs hung low under the weight of their sparkling snowy loads.
I’d driven this route hundreds — possibly even thousands — of times before. I knew the towns I passed through, the gas stations I drove past and the corners I weaved through. Unfortunately, familiarity is risky in good conditions and treacherous in bad.
A couple miles from my house, there’s a long sweeping right-hander that wraps around a small grove of trees on the inside. Tired and bored, I flew into the corner, trying to remember what I was having for dinner that evening. I turned the wheel. The car turned. The corner rolled into view. Then everything blurred. The apex of the corner flew past the windscreen replaced by the the road behind me then the apex again then the road. The adrenaline flooded into my veins and I tore at the steering wheel, trying desperately to wrestle back some modicum of control.
But it was too late for that. My car was pirouetting like a dancer and wasn’t for stopping.
After two full rotations, my four wheels cleared the tarmac and my bonnet met the deep snow drift. (Snow drifts are not soft fluffy cushions of slow by the way. They’re often a compacted mixture of ice, sleet, grit and snow formed from days of ploughing. Hitting one feels like ploughing into a concrete barrier.)
The airbag exploded, colliding with my face at 200 mph (I checked the deployment speed weeks later) and drove my face and chest back into the seat. It felt like being hit by a shovel, although I’m sure it’s better than the alternative.
After about five minutes blinking, swearing and wheezing, I stepped out of the car into the piercing cold. Shivering in my light summer jacket, I looked back at the steaming wreck I had caused. And you know what I thought? I only have myself to blame.
From that point on, I’ve been super careful about the conditions I drive in and how I drive in them.
Today, I’m going to share some of that advice with you so you can avoid a stupid crash like mine. It’s pretty simple advice and comes in three parts — A, B and C, for easy recall. Keep it in your head and drive and you should stay pretty safe in the winter.
The simplest way to stay safe in bad weather conditions is to simply avoid driving. However, I know, it’s easier said than done.
Keep an eye on the weather reports to stay abreast of any particular bad spells of weather and organise your schedule around them. Also, consider batching together jobs or tasks that require you to leave the house to minimise the number of trips you make.
Finally, ask your employer about flexible working opportunities. If you can work from home and avoid your commute, that’s a huge portion of your driving avoided.
It’s impossible to avoid all driving during the winter months. After all, that would mean not leaving your home for all of November, December, January and February in some snowy countries!
The key thing to remember is that driving in snowy and icy conditions isn’t like driving in summer. I know that sounds obvious but it’s easy to fall into ‘normal’ driving habits — just like I did all those years ago..
If you know conditions are going to be bad and you know you’ve got to head out, you simply must prepare for the journey. That’s what I’m going to discuss in this section.
Let’s start with your car. With the conditions against you, your car needs to be in tip-top condition to keep you safe. Discovering car problems midway through your journey when you’re stranded at the side of the road in a snowstorm is less than useless.
The best advice I can give you is to conduct a super simple five-minute checkup on your vehicle every week. Work round your car and check the condition and operation of all the essentials. My checkup covers things like tyre condition, tread depth, wiper blades, battery charge, oil levels, washer fluid, headlights, radiator fluid and the condition of all glass panes.
If anything is wrong — for example, low engine oil or a perished wiper blade — I try and fix it before I leave. However, for bigger tasks that isn’t always possible. If your tyres are looking bald, for example, you’ll probably need to have a garage replace the rubber.
If anything goes wrong during your journey, it’s wise to have enough equipment to keep you safe, secure and comfortable until you can fix the issue or help arrives.
In my own kit, I have a set of winter clothes, shovel, warning sign, de-icer, ice-scraper, jump start cables, mobile phone charger, first aid kit and some high energy food bars.
I’m not a mechanic and don’t have a whole lot of mechanical knowledge so I don’t carry any tools. However, that doesn’t mean you couldn’t or shouldn’t if you know your way around an engine.
Check Conditions and Plan Your Route
Before you leave, it’s always wise to check both weather and traffic reports. I can’t tell you how many traffic jams and closed roads I’ve avoided simply by checking a couple of websites before I leave.
For longer trips, it’s also worthwhile planning your route and letting someone know the roads you’re planning on using.
Don’t Leave Your Car Warming Up
Look, I get it. Warming up your car is really boring. It’s much easier to just leave the car in neutral with the engine running and head back indoors for a coffee. However, if you leave your car unattended and it’s stolen, your insurance probably won’t pay out.
So, if you plan to warm up your car before leaving, make sure you’re sat in the front seat!
Careful and Cautious Driving
Driving in wintry conditions is completely different to driving during warm and dry weather. So it is absolutely essential that you adapt your driving style to the elements.
Here are some simple tips and tricks to keep you safe on the roads.
Decrease your speed
The easiest way to stay safe on treacherous roads is to drive slower. Slower cars are easier to control and are less likely to skid and slide when cornering.
Increase your following distance
Leave significantly more space between your car and the next car to ensure you have ample room to stop in an emergency. Stopping distances can be ten times longer than usual if there is ice on the road!
Brake early and gently
Wherever possible, brake early and gently to reduce the chance of your car skidding.
Keep your lights on
During the winter, visibility is much poorer with increased cloud cover, reduced hours of daylight and heavy rain, sleet and snow. To make your car as visible as possible, keep your lights on at all time of day.
Use low gears
Wherever possible, use low gears to improve your traction and control, especially on hills.
If you ever feel uncomfortable with the conditions, I recommend you stop driving. There are a number of advanced driving qualifications you can take to improve your confidence and skill set.