Driving on Snow and Ice

1 Conversation

Every winter snow and ice create conditions ideal for inexperienced or careless drivers to find themselves in situations they can’t control and crashes occur, but slippery conditions can happen at any time of the year.

The best way to avoid sliding, is to not drive on slippery surfaces. If you do have to get somewhere, ensure you have the appropriate vehicle for the conditions and that it is adequately prepared for the conditions.

Drive slowly!

Don’t Panic.

Preparing your vehicle

In the case of winter weather, snow and ice, six months ago (when stocks are high, you have plenty of time for them to be ordered and prices are lower) invest in a set of winter tyres. Having stored them in darkness to prevent UV light deteriorating the rubber, have them fitted to your vehicle. Snow tyres have a special tread which forces snow out of the grooves to prevent them becoming packed with snow and turning into slicks, and are useful for areas which have snow for a significant part of the year. For other areas, winter tyres are adequate. Some insurance call centres will insist this is a ‘modification’ and want to overcharge you. Ask to speak to someone higher up as this should not affect your premium (although no doubt they will want to charge you an ‘admin fee’).

  • Ensure lights work and are not covered in snow, dirt or mud.

  • Ensure good vision all round, clear all windows of anything obscuring them. Any snow on the roof or bonnet should be cleared off. Snow can drop off the roof, or blow up from the bonnet as you drive, blocking vision.

  • Tyres should have at least 3mm tread.

  • Ensure good driving position, not a laid back seat or one elbow stuck out of the window, or drink or cigarette in one hand.

  • Sensible shoes. Stilettos look lovely but the heels are ruined by driving. If they are covered in snow or mud they may slip on the pedals so clean and dry them, or keep a spare pair in the car.

  • In very heavy rain, consider using an anti-fog cleaner inside windows to help prevent steaming up, and a rain repellent on the outside of the windscreen.

  • Do not use water to defrost windscreens as this can crack them, and in very cold weather will simply freeze up again. If your windscreen has a chip, beware of blasting hot air at a cold windscreen as this can also cause it to crack. Air conditioning can work better than a heater if you have it.

  • Put a shovel or spade, and a yard brush in your car. Old carpet, sand, grit or cat litter can be very useful. The sand etc can be stored in the boot, which if you have a rear wheel drive car will help with traction.

  • Tyres – it may help to let a little air out of the tyres, as they will then find lumps and bumps in the surface you are driving on to help with grip. However, if you need the tyres to punch through the surface to get to the road, this is not advised.

  • Open a window. This allows you to hear how much grip your tyres have – if you can’t hear them, they don’t have any. It may also give you more warning that someone else is in trouble and you may be in their way!

The Driving Bit

This can only be GENERAL advice. Especially with winter weather so much depends on the conditions, as well as the vehicle you are driving, what load you are carrying and your driving skills. Some of the advice will contradict some of the other advice. The only advice that will suit every vehicle, every driver and every condition is to SLOW DOWN. Keep within your braking distance – which may be 10 times your non-slippery surface distance.

All the weight of a vehicle rests on the small amount of each tyre in contact with the road. This may not be much bigger than the sole of a boot. That is all that keeps your car on the road, four footprints. When cornering, the weight of the car is moved to the two tyres on the inside of the turn. When you brake, to the front two, and accelerate, to the rear two. If you brake or accelerate on a corner, there is ONE bootprint keeping your car on the road.

This may be a slight exaggeration, but it gives you the idea of how little there is keeping you on the road at the best of times. Add in a slippery surface, and that one bootprint may not be enough to keep you from skidding .

Keep a constant speed on corners, if you need to slow down, do it on the straight approach to the corner, then choose your gear when coming out of the corner to match your speed. If you need to slow down, do it smoothly before you start cornering. High gear when cornering will prevent you from accidently accelerating, while low gear will give you more control. Work out your driving style, if you really can’t keep your foot off the throttle, choose high gear.

Plan ahead.

Getting Started

Some cars may have enough power to pull away without using the throttle, by putting it in first gear, lifting the clutch smoothly and keeping feet off the pedals. Older cars will have a choke which could be used to help pull away without the throttle. Not all cars will do this, as some sporty cars don’t kick in the power until high revs, so don’t rely on this for every car.

Second gear can be used to pull away on a flat surface, as this keeps the revs low and can prevent wheels from spinning. However, it is not necessary as a first choice as there is an increased risk of stalling the engine, or using too much throttle to prevent this. Keeping your actions smooth and slow will negate the need to use second gear.

Hills, slopes, car park ramps and driveways

Advice can be to either:

  • A) Drive down hills in high gear to prevent sliding

  • B) Drive down hills in low gear and use engine braking to restrict speed of descent

The issues with these bits of advice are:

  • A) This is completely wrong. Don’t do it!

  • B) If using engine braking, and the clutch is let up too fast, the wheels can still lock. In front wheel drive cars, steering could be lost if front wheels lose traction. If it’s really slippery, the car can start sliding faster than the engine is turning the wheels. Also the driver behind has no warning that you are slowing down as your brake lights don’t go on. If the driver has no clue either, they will be travelling too close and may slide into you when they panic and hit the brakes. Engine braking will also only affect the driving wheels, while brakes will work on all four wheels. Gearboxes aren’t made for deceleration, they are primarily for acceleration, not matter how they are abused under normal circumstances, and they are more expensive that brake pads, so it’s better to just not go out.


What sort of snow are you driving on? Loose, new snow? Compacted snow after hours of other drivers mashing it down?

Loose, new snow is the one time you don’t have to worry about locking your wheels up when you stop. Locked wheels will push snow forwards, creating a ramp your car will need to drive upwards to get over, adding gravity to your stopping efforts.

Your flash sports car with wide, low profile tyres will happily float across the top of fresh new snow, in the same way you spread your weight if you find yourself on thin ice. However, coming home again, when the snow is compacted you may have trouble. In this case you need skinny tyres to force their way through the snow to the road below. You’ll also need to rely on your cadence braking (rapid repeated application and release of the brake pedal) or ABS (which will not work to the same standard as it does in normal conditions, and may cut in at the slightest pressure on the brakes when you don’t really want it) on compacted snow, as there will be no ramps of snow if you lock your wheels.

Skidding and sliding

So the worst has happened, and you’re in a skid. Stop reading this and pay attention to the road! You have a few options, depending on how and where you are skidding, if there are any cars about, moving or parked, or any people, street furniture, hedges or brick walls in your path.

If in doubt, don’t touch any pedals. If you already are, remove your feet immediately. While it is possible that removing your foot from the throttle could cause problems, this is much less likely than leaving it on or using the brake.

Rear wheel drive cars usually skid with the rear wheels sliding out sideways, pushing the front of the car in the opposite direction. Gently turn the steering wheel in the direction of the skid – ie the opposite from the way you were steering when you got into the skid. Take care not to overcorrect, or you will slide the other way. If this happens, repeat the manoeuvre, turning the wheel in the direction of the skid again. Swinging it widely in panic will cause the car to swing wildly as well, possibly even spinning right round.

Front wheel drive cars usually skid with the front wheels, understeering. The wheels turn, but the car doesn’t and slides forward. Briefly steer opposite direction to skid then back again, smoothly, as this should help your wheels to find traction. Alternatively, smoothly turn the steering wheel in the direction of the skid as far as possible to regain control.

Getting stuck

Wheelspinning. Don’t. If you are stuck and the wheels are spinning, continuing to spin them just digs you in deeper. On the other hand, if you have a lot of experience driving on slippery surfaces you will be able to tell when you just need a bit more power and can make a final push to get going.

Rocking. This is using a pendulum-type motion, changing between reverse and 1st gear to build up enough momentum to break out of the hole you are in. It is easier in an automatic car, but can be done in a manual.

If you’re trying to drive uphill and can’t get traction, try going downhill. If this is impossible, try turning round and reversing up. If there’s ice in the way, try digging it out with the shovel you’ve put in your car before setting out. No shovel? Try knocking on doors to see if someone is able to lend you one.

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