Winter driving

car covered in snow against a snowy roadUK weather can be unpredictable. Severe weather conditions can arise when least expected and can be extremely risky if you decide to drive. Driving is a risky business at the best of times so hazards such as darkness, rain, fog, ice and dazzling sunshine only add to the danger. Winter is usually the time when we experience the most dangerous conditions.  Information on disruptions, closures and warnings can be found on Durham Councy Council's website and Darlington Borough Council's site

The following advice will also help drivers stay safer in winter

Before you set off:

  • In bad weather, consider whether every journey is necessary; the best way to stay safe in bad weather is to stay off the roads and use alternative means of travel such as walking, bus, or train.
  • Consider your route: bear in mind that some types of road are particularly dangerous in certain conditions. For example, steep country roads are treacherous in icy weather and some roads are more susceptible to flooding and strong side winds than others.
  • Check tyres: tread depth should be at least 3mm and preferably more to be safe in wet or icy conditions and tyres should be inflated to the pressure recommended by the manufacturer.
  • Check lights and wipers: ensure they are fully functioning.
  • Clean windscreen, windows and mirrors: ensure they are totally clear of snow, ice or steam.
  • Use additives: add anti-freeze to the radiator and winter additive to the windscreen washer fluid.
  • Check forecasts and traffic news, both local and national. You can check the Met Office website for warnings of hazardous conditions.
  • Inform someone of your intended route and time of arrival.
  • Ensure you’re fit to drive: it’s crucial to ensure that your driving is not impaired by drink, drugs, medicine, stress, tiredness or a distraction like a mobile phone at any time of year, but you especially need to be focused and fit to drive in adverse conditions.
  • Check your emergency kit: ensure your vehicle is properly stocked. It should contain the following essential items:
    • ice-scraper and de-icer
    • cloths
    • high-visibility vest
    • warning triangle
    • mobile phone for use only when parked
    • torch
    • blanket, warm clothes and boots
    • food and drink
    • first-aid kit
    • map
    • spade if driving in snow

In addition to the above, make sure your vehicle is properly serviced and well maintained. This is important all year round, but especially so in winter.

Basic principles for driving in bad weather

The best way to be safe in extremely bad weather is to avoid driving at all. However, bad weather can be unpredictable and it’s common to get caught out while on the road already. These basic safe driving principles apply in all adverse conditions:

  • Slow right down: If visibility is poor or the road is wet or icy, it will take you longer to react to hazards and your speed should be reduced accordingly. If you have a temperature gauge in your vehicle that is showing zero or below degrees, then presume that a road will be icy.
  • Maintain a safe gap behind the vehicle in front: stopping distances are double in the wet and ten times greater in icy weather. The gap between you and the vehicle in front is your braking space in a crisis.
  • Look out for vulnerable road users: be aware that people on foot, bicycles, motorbikes and horses are harder to spot in adverse weather and in the dark. Drive as though someone could step out in front of you at any time.
  • Look out for signs warning of adverse conditions, including fixed signs, such as those warning of exposure to high-winds, and variable message signs on motorways that warn of fog, snow and which may display temporary slower speed limits.
  • Stay in control: avoid harsh braking and acceleration and carry out manoeuvres slowly and with extra care.
  • Use lights: put lights on in gloomy weather, when visibility is reduced. Use front and rear fog lights in dense fog.

Before setting off:

  • Ask yourself whether you really need to travel. If you do, is it possible to travel by other means, such as by train? Your need to stay alive is more important than your need to drive.
  • If it is unsafe to drive due to thick ice or snow, then you mustn’t. It’s much better not to go than to die or kill someone. You may have very serious visibility issues in snow or fog as well as being unable to control your vehicle.
  • If the weather forecasts sub-zero temperatures, check your route and the forecast carefully before you set off and keep listening to the travel news for weather updates. The Met Office provides up to date forecasts, and issues warnings when severe weather is likely.
  • If you have a dash-board temperature gauge that tells you the temperature outside the vehicle, use it to inform how you drive. If it is sub-zero, even by one or two degrees, you must drive with extreme caution, presuming that there may be ice.
  • Allow plenty of time for your journey to allow for hold-ups caused by bad weather. Never speed up to make up for lost time. 
  • Make sure there is anti-freeze in your radiator and windscreen washer bottle.
  • Never set off until your heater has de-misted the windscreen fully.
  • Keep a de-icer in the vehicle. Use it when required, but always find a safe place to stop first.

When driving in cold weather:

  • Be aware of vulnerable road users, people on foot, bicycles and motorbikes, who will be more difficult to see in miserable conditions.
  • Drive slowly, allowing extra time for braking.
  • Maintain at least a 10-second gap between you and the vehicle in front. (Winter Driving (Highways Agency, 2004)
  • Use the highest gear possible to avoid wheel spin, but taking care not to let your speed creep up. 
  • Brake gently to avoid locking the wheels. Get into a low gear earlier than normal and allow the speed of the vehicle to fall gradually. (Driving in icy and snowy conditions, Winter Motoring Magazine (Green Flag Motoring Assistance, 2004)
  • Take corners very slowly and steer gently and steadily, rather than with jerky movements, to avoid skidding. 
  • Don’t rely on any skid training you might have received to get you out of trouble. It’s better to not drive, or drive very slowly, than risk skidding. (Winter Driving (Highways Agency, 2004)
  • Never get too close to gritters; they throw salt across all lanes of a road. You should also keep a good distance from snowploughs because they can throw up large amounts of snow. Don’t try to overtake snowploughs by using lanes that have not been fully cleared of snow. (Winter Driving: Safer Ways To Drive When The Weather Is Bad, Highways Agency (Highways Agency, 2005)

For more information:

Winter sun

  • Dazzle from winter sun can be dangerous. Keep a pair of sunglasses (prescription if needed) in the vehicle all year round and make sure you keep your windscreen clean. Wear your sunglasses in bright sunshine, especially if the sun is low or reflecting off a wet road.

Darker evenings and mornings

  • Switch on lights as soon as it starts to get dark.
  • In urban areas use dipped beam. Use full beam on other roads at night but dip them when there is someone in front or coming towards you. (Driving at Night, Green Flag,