Take it easy this winter

Posted on December 7th, 2015 by James Luckhurst

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Many of us find the thought of driving in winter weather pretty unappetising. We may even be afraid to go out because of what might happen – a skid, a slide, a crash, or even a long period stuck at the roadside.

We’ve been reflecting on some of the advice given to drivers in Canada, where winter conditions are a regular and often severe part of the driving experience.  And while we’d be the first to suggest postponing a journey and staying safe indoors, we know that this isn’t always as simple as it sounds. Scott Marshall is director of a big Canadian driver training organisation. He says the first step of controlling winter driving anxiety is confidence.

“Having confidence in yourself as a driver and confidence your vehicle is ready to handle the winter conditions will help you reach your destination safely.

“Let’s start with your vehicle. Preparing your vehicle for winter is more than a check-up. Placing winter tyres on your vehicle will help your vehicle grip the road better. Winter tyres are a softer rubber compound than all-season tyres and therefore become more flexible when the temperature drops. They are known to stop the vehicle quicker than all–season tyres and grip the road better to allow the driver to accelerate more effectively.”

Scott Marshall says one important factor is to ensure your vehicle is ready to drive before you get into it. “Ensure any snow, ice or frost has been scraped off the windows, mirrors, headlights and tail lights. This allows for complete visibility, both for you and so other road users can see you. Just before you begin to clear your vehicle, start the engine. By the time you complete your clearing, the defroster and fan can do their job to improve the visibility from inside your vehicle.”

Once your car is ready, then check that you’re also ready. Ensure you’re not wearing bulky clothes for driving. Heavy winter coats prohibit arm movement and can affect how you steer. After the vehicle is warm inside, take that winter coat off and wear a sweater instead. Thick soled boots also affect how you apply the accelerator and brake pedals.

“Wearing winter boots in winter weather is a good idea, but perhaps store those big heavy boots in the boot, just in case you get stuck and need to get out and dig. Wear thinner soled boots or shoes to help you get in touch with your pedals,” advises Marshall.

Now you’re on the way. Things will need to change compared with driving during other seasons: Scott says looking a long way ahead will help you spot a change in traffic patterns, such as noticing brake lights or if everyone in your lane is changing to the next lane. “Don’t wait until you see the reason; change lanes early,” he advises. “If you need to brake, brake early and gradually. This allows you to keep your vehicle under control.

“As you travel in traffic, increase your following distance. Many drivers make the mistake of using car lengths to measure this distance. It’s actually measured in seconds. Normal road conditions can allow drivers to maintain a minimum of two seconds behind the driver ahead of them. In slippery conditions, double that distance. When the driver ahead of you passes a fixed item at the side of the road, begin counting. You should reach that same fixed item a few seconds later. A bigger following distance allows you to brake early and more gradually. Braking late may cause more panic and perhaps a skid. Why add to your anxiety by braking late?”

To conclude, we advise you give  yourself more time to reach your destination. If the conditions are less than ideal, leave with lots of extra time so you won’t need to take chances with your driving decisions. Better yet, if the weather is too severe, stay at home or take public transport. Let the professionals do the driving.

GEM has an e-book on safer driving in winter conditions

GEM has published a number of technical articles on the benefits of winter tyres.