Top tips on how to drive on ice

Ice is the motorist's worst enemy but our top tips for driving on ice should help keep you out of trouble

ice driving

Winter driving isn't really something that motorists in the UK need to worry about. The worst snow and ice will tend to happen in remote areas such as the Scottish Highlands, Welsh mountains and North Yorkshire Moors, where hardly anybody lives. Even then, temperatures will only drop to freezing for a small part of the year.

But cold snaps do happen here in the UK, and if you combine rain with freezing temperatures, then ice is going to be a genuine risk on winter roads. Because these situations happen so rarely, there's a lack of experience on the part of drivers, and this can cause problems on icy roads.

One problem for drivers is being prepared for icy conditions. What usually happens is that the first cold snap comes, and the slippery roads catch people out, resulting in accidents and incidents. It's made even worse if local authorities are unprepared, too. If the local council hasn't been out gritting the roads, then it's a recipe for disaster.

However, while driving on ice is a challenge, it's not impossible. If you take care, plan ahead and give driving your full attention and be extra vigilant, then it's possible to drive safely in challenging conditions. Here we've rounded up some top tips on how to be safe on the roads when they are slippery.

1. Don't drive

Your first question to yourself is - do you need to go out on icy roads? If it's a non-essential journey, then maybe it's better to hold off. Driving on ice isn't something you should do if you don't need to. It can be intimidating for novice drivers, especially if a skid should occur, so it might be bet to avoid doing it at all. Even if you're a confident driver on ice, not everybody else will be, so the potential for an accident is always greater during tricky conditions. If there's an alternative for your situation, then it's worth considering ahead of driving.

2. Slow down

When the weather is poor and roads are slippery, the firt thing that should come to mind is to slow down. There is a lot less grip when it's icy - while stopping distances double in the wet, they can increase by a factor of 10 on ice, if there's any braking resistance at all. Even at extremely low speeds there is a risk of skidding, especially when applying the brakes or sharp steering inputs. You should make inputs in slow motion, as smooth application of the throttle, brakes and steering will reduce the risk of skidding. However, even if you think that driving at 10mph is going to be too fast, then slow down even more.  

3. Drive gently

Driving on icy roads is similar in principle to driving efficiently, as you need to use small, gentle movements on the accelerator and avoiding using the brakes unless absolutely necessary. If you're driving a manual or semi-automatic car, you should try and set off in second gear rather than first so that the power of the engine doesn't overwhelm the tyres, and you should use engine braking to slow down. Don't panic and slam on the brakes - new cars come with anti-lock brakes, but they don't work very well in icy conditions, and you'll slide regardless.

If you are driving down a hill in icy conditions, then ensure that you reduce your speed before you reach the slope and use a much lower gear to aid control so you don’t have to use the brakes. 

Best 4x4s and off-roaders

4. Plan ahead

Stopping distances are ten times greater in ice and snow. If you don't look ahead and plan to stop well in advance, you may find yourself sliding dangerously across junctions or out of control. Plan your route before you set off, too - stick to main roads which are more likely to have been gritted. If you have local knowledge, then try and stick to bus routes - these are far more likely to have been gritted than back roads.

Does your car have a temperature gauge? Keep an eye on it. Sitting in a warm car can lull you into a false sense of security, and you may not be prepared if it gets cold suddenly outside. Ice can still be present at a couple of degrees over freezing in shaded areas, so beware.

5. Prepare your car

Besides the usual ice scraper, you should be carrying a fully charged mobile phone in case of emergency, a warning triangle, a tow-rope, jump leads and of course, winter clothing. If you're heading out into uncleared or rural roads, you should take a snow shovel and an old rug or sack to put under the wheels if you get stuck.

Before you drive, you need to make sure your car is ready to go. Start it up, and turn the heating on to make sure that the windows and mirrors are clear before you start driving. The air-conditioning should be turned on to help the car clear, as it's more effective than just the heating alone.

6. Know what to do in an emergency

If your car starts to slide, put the clutch in and turn the steering wheel into the direction of the skid. This frees up the wheels to start turning again, which is the only way to get traction on slippery roads. Don't brake, as your wheels will just lock up and you'll skid even further.

If you get stuck in snow, put an old rug or sack underneath the driven wheels of the car and try to drive out slowly. You may need to dig yourself a path. If that fails, call your breakdown provider - or the emergency services if you're stuck in a dangerous location. 

7. Don't get cocky

If you drive a high-riding 4x4, the feeling of reassurance will wash over you instantly - with such a high, commanding driving position and the promise of four-wheel drive security, you can feel invincible and ready to set out into the icy weather without a care in the world. However, this can be a false sense of security. Drive poorly, even in an off-roader, and you're just as likely to suffer in the ice as any other car, while the latest batch of SUVs or crossovers that come with a switchable traction control system rather than four-wheel drive are likely to be just as effective as a conventional front-wheel-drive car when it gets slippery.

Whatever you're driving, don't get lulled into a trance just because nothing bad has happened yet. Icy roads are unpredictable, and you need to have your wits about you the entire time you're driving.

Winter driving tips

Preparing your car for winterUsing ABS brakes correctlyControlling understeer and oversteerDriving in snow - top tipsDriving in floods and heavy rain - top tips

What are your top tips for driving in winter weather? Let us know in the comments section below...

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