Winter is coming and it’s important to be prepared – and that doesn’t just mean making sure your car is ready. Your own driving behaviour and style is just as vital to staying safe on the road when the worst of the weather hits.
It’s fair to say the UK has enjoyed some milder winters in recent years, so you might be out of practice in dealing with hazards such as black ice or snow drifts.
Don’t worry, though, as Auto Express has joined forces with the experts at Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy, Weybridge, Surrey to take one of its winter driving courses and produce a “do's and don’ts” guide of how to prepare for and drive in extreme weather.
We’ve also put together a comprehensive guide to driving this winter with top safety tips and advice for handling your car on cold days and dark nights. This guide covers all the basics from dealing with ice and snow on the road to coping in the high winds, rain and floods that are more common in the UK.
Click the links below or at the top left of this page to explore our winter driving tips in full - and read on below for our "do's and don'ts"!
Preparing your car for winter
Less speed, more smoothness
Using ABS brakes correctly
Controlling understeer and oversteer
Driving in snow - top tips
Driving on ice - top tips
Driving in floods and heavy rain - top tips
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It's important to pick the right roads and avoid areas that will be particularly weather beaten. Use online maps ahead of a journey to see where traffic is worse and avoid any accident spots. Our instructor, Dafydd Williams, senior driving specialist at Mercedes-Benz World, added: “Do you really need to travel? Are there alternative options that reduce your amount of car use to avoid unnecessary risk?”
It might seem obvious, but looking ahead is the easiest way to stay in control – don’t just concentrate on the end of the bonnet or the car in front. Dafydd explained: “Look as far ahead as you can see and then work back to the front of your car. When you approach a bend, look around it as far as you can see.” Doing this will allow you to prepare speed and steering well in advance and avoid late, dangerous movements.
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If you’ve looked well ahead, you should be able to slow down early to avoid stamping on the brakes at the last minute. Dafydd said: “Braking sends the weight to the front of the car so you don’t want to turn while you’re braking. But as soon as you’re happy, blend the accelerator back in.” The smoother you drive, the less likely it is you’ll lose control. Steering inputs should be equally smooth – avoid jerky movements.
Smooth driving doesn’t mean coasting, though. Dafydd said: “You shouldn’t ever not be giving the car any input. If you’re not on the brakes, then you should be giving the car some throttle. It’s all about weight transfer.” It’s very easy to brake and then take your feet off the pedals and coast around a corner, but it’s not advised. As long as inputs are smooth, you’ll be safe.
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Traction control is fitted to cars to stop the rear wheels spinning up, and this can be the difference between drivers going in a straight line or spinning in a circle on snowy roads. Dafydd said: “If the traction control – or ESP – lights are flashing, things have started to go wrong, so be aware if they activate.”
Looking ahead doesn’t just mean seeing what other road users are doing and where the road goes. Road signs and markings can give you a heap of important information that can make you safer. They can assist with telling you what the road surface is like, how steep the road is, what the limit is and what might be coming up. None of this should be ignored.
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We got to grips with ABS on the wet braking straight at Mercedes-Benz World and Dafydd told us: “It’s important to know what the system feels like – a judder sensation under the foot. It is important to understand that ABS not only stops you in a shorter distance, it also provides valuable steering control under braking.” If you don’t have ABS, you’ll need to pump the brakes in icy conditions. Make sure you’re familiar with what your car has and react accordingly.
Cracked windscreens, poorly charged batteries or fault lights on your dashboard shouldn’t be ignored. Even if you drive perfectly, a car that isn’t performing at its optimum could cause breakdowns or accidents. A car’s systems are there to help, so make sure your car is free from ills before heading out on the road. The same goes for maintaining your tyres.
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Modern cars come with climate control, heated seats and powerful windscreen wipers, so it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security. But what if you break down? Make sure you’ve got a hat, scarves and a winter coat plus blankets and suitable provisions in case the worst happens and you get stranded at the roadside or stuck in a lengthy traffic jam.
It's a general rule to remain a distance from cars in front to give you enough braking time, and this is exaggerated in inclement weather. Stopping distances can be 10 times longer in slippery areas than in normal conditions. Tailgating is also anti-social, so it’s important to remember to be tolerant of others in general. While you might be comfortable with adverse conditions, others might not.
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We got to grips with icy oversteer on Mercedes-Benz World’s skid circle which replicates black ice. Although it might look like controlled fun, it’s important to know what to do if it happens in the real world. You don’t want to find yourself sliding around and be unsure of how to stop. Dafydd’s advice is simple: “Steer into the slide and keep steering until you feel it straighten up.”
What are your top tips for driving in winter weather? Let us know in the comments section below...