Winter Driving Abroad

Posted on December 2nd, 2013 by GEM Motoring Assist

Your guide to safer winter driving on foreign roads, whether you’re in your own car or a rented vehicle.

Be prepared
If you’re heading for a great winter holiday in the Alps, or perhaps venturing further afield, it pays to understand both the safety and legal issues that may go with driving in winter conditions.

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What to expect
Every good driver expects the unexpected on every journey. Specific problems associated with winter driving include ice, snow, rain, freezing rain, fog, frost and wind. Even sunshine can be problematic in winter, as it’s easy to become blinded when you’re driving straight into the low sun.

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Tactics for safer driving to the slopes
Bear in mind that the nearest ski resorts (around Geneva) are at least an eight-hour drive from Calais or the Shuttle terminal. That length of journey can be made in one day, but it’s vital to build in breaks and – if possible – share the driving.

Many resorts require a longer drive, usually necessitating an overnight stop.
Journeys in the USA and Canada tend to be much longer, so proper planning is important, especially in winter when the weather can turn nasty very quickly.

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Legal requirements
Each country will have its own set of rules, with fines for non-compliance. But as a general rule, the following regulations will apply in countries or regions where winter weather is a regular feature:

  • There has to be antifreeze fluid in the wiper and windscreen water.
  • The car has to be equipped with winter tyres, an ice scraper and a brush.
  • If the driver is heading for hilly or mountainous region, then he/she must carry snow chains.
  • All windows of the car have to be clean to provide a full view around.
  • The number plates and lights have to be kept clean.
  • The car roof and bonnet must be cleared of snow and ice lumps.
  • If the car is not equipped with winter tyres in winter conditions or with snow chains, where chains are compulsory, the driver has to pay a fine.
  • If the driver causes an obstruction or collision due to the lack of winter equipment, the fine is higher. The rear fog lamp may only be used in fog with less than 50 metres visibility, not in rain or snow. Lights must be used in dark weather (though many countries now require that lights be used at any time and in any weather).

Snow tyres and snow chains
Countries which expect harsh winters usually have specific safety regulations regarding tyres, driving and snow chain use. Police roadblocks on mountain road approaches to ski resorts are commonplace throughout the Alps and in any other mountainous areas. If you arrive at an “obligatory snowchain’ zone (marked with a sign) without snow chains, the police officer will send you back down and not let you through until you have a set and they are properly attached. You may also incur a fine.

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Fitting snow chains
The process is a little fiddly, but it’s a whole lot worse if you wait until it’s freezing and snowing before you try to fit snow chains for the first time. By the way, you can’t use snow chains when it’s not snowing, so don’t think about fitting them in warm, dry southern England and bumping your way down the autoroute!

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When to fit snow chains
Fit snow chains whenever grip is reduced due to lying or falling snow on the road. There are usually clear signs telling drivers that they MUST fit them. If this is the case, then it is usual to continue a journey until you reach a lay-by at the point where using the chains becomes mandatory. Then you fit them and drive on.

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FAQs
Q: When taking your own car abroad where can you obtain snow chains?
You can hire snow chains for around £75 a week (this is an average. Some are more, some are less). However, if you are a regular traveller to the mountains, then it would make sense to buy them.  A shop in Borough Green, Weissenfels,  is the UK specialist centre. It’s handily located just five minutes off the M20, so you can collect your chains on your way to the mountains, and have a practical lesson in fitting them. It’s always best to know this BEFORE you need to do it for real.
There are also special deals they do, such that if you haven’t used your snow chains and you change your car (thus possibly needing a different size of snow chain), then they will exchange your existing set free of charge. Visit snow chains or call 01732 88 4408.

Q: We’re renting a 4×4 in Canada this winter.  Am I right in thinking that we won’t be required to fit chains, as long as we have snow tyres?
Opinion is divided. When the use of snow chains becomes mandatory, then this means all car types, including 4x4s, should use them. However, police patrol officers may wave you through in a 4×4, even if conditions are severe. But you should ask yourself, legalities apart, whether your skills and experience are up to it. You would in fact be better off, and safer, renting a 2-wheel drive vehicle with snow chains than a 4×4 without chains. That’s because a 2-wheel drive with chains will handle better in snow than a 4×4 without chains.

Q: Can I buy snow chains when I’m abroad, and when conditions require? I don’t see the point in big expenditure if they’re actually going to stay in their box!
You will find shops selling snow chains at motorway service areas, and at fuel stations in most winter resort towns. Expect to pay a lot for them, though, and you are unlikely to receive a lesson in fitting them. You may also find, of course, that you are miles from any store when it starts snowing heavily and you need snow chains.

Q: Are snow chains useful in this country for off-road driving, even for parking in wet, muddy fields?
Snow chains will dramatically improve the traction your wheels have on any sort of slippery surface, but our advice would be to park on solid tarmac rather than risk causing possible damage to your car and getting stuck in a field.

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