Winter driving tips

Winter driving tips

Planning to head out in the car in wintry conditions? Follow our top driving tips to ensure you navigate the cold weather safely.

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By Cazoo editorial team

Published: 15 December 2022

Driving your car in winter can be quite different to the rest of the year, with wet, grimy and icy roads, foggy conditions, dark evenings and possibly even snow to contend with. 

A good starting point is to make sure your car is winter-ready so that it – and you – are as prepared as possible. Here, we’re going to take you through everything you need to know about driving in winter. That includes how to adapt your driving style to suit the conditions, how to work with your car’s safety features, and how to maintain control on a slippery road.

Take your time and stay calm

The prospect of driving in winter can be less appealing than going for a spin on a summer’s day, but there are lots of things you can do to feel more confident and perhaps the most important is to take your time and stay calm. A steady approach makes it less likely that an emergency situation will develop, and you’ll have more time to react if one does. Staying calm means you’ll be better able to deal with an emergency situation.

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Use a higher gear to set off

In first gear, a car’s wheels can spin easily when setting off on a slippery road. Using second gear to set off reduces or even eliminates wheelspin. That’s easily done in a car with a manual gearbox; most automatic cars can be ‘locked’ in second gear using the gear stick itself, or the gear change paddles on the steering wheel.

Change the car’s driving mode

Many modern cars have various driving modes that you can select while on the move. Some, particularly SUVs, have a dedicated ‘slippery surface’ or ‘snow and ice’ mode which alters the car’s performance to work better in those conditions. If your car doesn’t have that, use ‘eco’ mode. It reduces the engine’s power which makes wheelspin less likely.

Read the road

You can learn a lot about how you should be driving from the road surface, and that’s especially true in winter. If it’s a sunny day, any areas of the road in shade could be icy. Shiny patches could be icy as well. Leaves and compacted snow will be slippery. If you’re driving along a road that’s covered in both compacted and fresh snow, the fresh snow will provide your tyres with more grip.

Using your car’s ABS

Every modern car and many older ones have an anti-lock braking system, or ABS, which prevents the wheels locking (and the car skidding) when you press the brake pedal hard. It does this by applying and releasing the brakes on each wheel many times a second, which allows the car to grip the road better and for you to continue to steer the car. The ABS system is triggered automatically and when that happens you can feel a vibration through the brake pedal, along with a grating or grinding noise. That’s perfectly normal, so don’t be tempted to take your foot off the brakes because you think there’s something wrong.

Use your car’s driver safety features

Every modern car and many older ones are fitted with assorted driver-safety features. These include traction control and stability control which can help prevent the car becoming uncontrollable if the wheels spin or the car goes into a skid. They work by applying the brakes to individual wheels and reducing the engine’s power. As you drive along an icy, snowy road, you might feel these features working away, tugging the car back into line. All driver safety features play a vital role in your safety, keeping your car going in the right direction. But they’re not infallible if you drive too fast, or in a way that’s not appropriate for the conditions.

Give yourself more of a gap and reduce your speed

Though a car’s driver safety features are very effective at keeping you moving and helping you maintain control, the slipperiness of ice and snow means a car takes longer to react to the steering and brakes, and those reactions can be exaggerated. Increasing the gap between you and the car in front gives you more space to work in and more time to slow or stop; reducing your speed helps you maintain control of your car.

How to control a skid

There are two types of skid that you might experience while driving in winter: understeer and oversteer. Understeer happens when the car’s front wheels lose their grip as you turn into a corner. The car feels like it’s going straight on, or at least not turning as much as you want. If this happens, ease your foot off the throttle pedal until you feel the front wheels grip. 

Oversteer happens when the car’s back wheels lose grip. You’ll feel the back end of the car start to move sideways, and to counteract this you need to gently ease your foot off the accelerator pedal and look to where you want the car to go, making sure that your hands turn the steering wheel in that direction. You’ll actually be pointing the steering in the opposite direction to where the back wheels are going (known as opposite lock or counter-steering). When you feel the back wheels grip again, gradually turn the steering back towards the right direction.

Understeer and oversteer can happen at any speed. The slower you’re going, the more time you have to deal with it. It’s crucial that you use the pedals and steering as smoothly as possible. Jumping off the accelerator, hitting the brakes hard or jerking the steering are all things that could unsettle the car and make the skid even worse.

Driving through water

Winter floods are common and are a huge hazard when driving. We’re not just talking about floods that submerge an entire landscape – even large puddles can cause problems.

If there’s a large area of water ahead, slow down as much as possible before you get to it. If you’re going too fast, your car’s wheels may skate over the surface of the water, or aquaplane. If that happens, you don’t have control of the car until the tyres grip onto the road again. You may also cause a ‘bow wave’ at the front of the car. If that happens, water can get into the car’s engine and electronics. At best, the car may just stall. At worst, the engine and electronics could be severely damaged.

If a more significant stretch of water is blocking the road, just turn around and find a different route. Driving through could be extremely dangerous, especially if the water is moving, so it’s best to not even try. If you find yourself stuck between multiple floods, call the emergency services and await rescue.

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