Tips for driving in snow, ice and hail

Tips & guides

20 September 2018

Winter driving can be challenging for even experienced motorists, with hazardous conditions such as snow, ice and hail, and an increased risk of breakdowns.

Unlike our northern European neighbours, UK motorists rarely have to face dangerous driving conditions, and the UK driving test barely mentions winter driving. It's no surprise then, that drivers are often unprepared for the onset of black ice or thick snow, resulting in an increased risk of breakdowns and low-speed accidents.

This guide aims to provide some simple tips to help you get through winter safely.


Snow

Surprisingly, freshly-fallen snow can provide decent levels of grip, as the flakes compact under pressure from car tyres. After a while, however, crushed snow starts to become more like ice – and it can also obscure potholes or mask other ground-level hazards, like high kerbs or fallen debris.

Clear any snow off your car and thoroughly demist all the windows before you set off, starting in second gear and keeping engine revs as low as possible. Snow often varies drastically in texture, so reduce your speed and navigate around obstacles like parked vehicles well in advance. It’s always best to follow existing tyre tracks, where possible.


Hail

Hail storms can be intimidating from behind the wheel, with a sudden reduction in visibility and a cacophony of bouncing stones. Road markings can become obscured within seconds, and braking distances increase as tyres begin to skate over compacted ice balls. Cars are unlikely to have a breakdown during hail storms, but larger stones could potentially cause bodywork or window damage, so it's worth seeking shelter if possible.

If you can, pull over during a hail storm and wait for it to pass – they rarely last long. On motorway journeys, increase the gap between you and the vehicle in front, set the wipers to their highest speed and turn on your fog lights, since visibility can plummet within seconds. Remember that a sudden whiteout may obscure lane and junction lines, so concentrate on road signs rather than ground-level paint work.


Ice

With its smooth, glassy surface, ice can sometimes be difficult to spot, making it a particularly important hazard to be aware of. Most cars nowadays have traction control systems that regulate the rotation speed of each wheel, and these systems are invaluable for driving in icy conditions, as they can help to stop tyres from slipping. Four-wheel drive will increase pull-away traction but won’t help you to stop or steer, so accelerate and brake gently for optimal levels of grip. Dramatically increase stopping distances on icy roads (ideally by 10 times), and always indicate forthcoming manoeuvres early.

Finally, remember the Highway Code recommends that you avoid driving in icy or snowy conditions, unless the journey is absolutely essential. However, if you need to hit the road, then try to pack an 'emergency kit' with a torch, blanket, snacks and bottled water in case of a breakdown or accident.