Driving on ice

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Dave Randle offers some tips to avoid being voted off in wintry conditions


Is your journey really necessary? Do you feel confident to make it?


It is a legal requirement and also vitally necessary to your and your passengers’ safety that you clear all windows and lights before starting off. Make sure snow from the bonnet or roof is not going to blow into your line of sight as it thaws, or the wind takes it. Clear the car with scrapers and soft brushes. Do not expect your wipers to move packed snow from the screen. Wipers are under strain simply to move across a clean screen because they are being driven from the short end. Using them to move snow and ice can result in a fuse blowing at best and replacement motors at worst.

Never race a cold engine. This is true in all conditions. Management systems are designed to start the engine at optimum revs for the purpose, allowing the oilways to fill and so forth before it’s ready to turn faster or to take up the strain of pulling the vehicle. Using the throttle before it has settled will shorten the life of the engine. In very cold weather, this is even more important. Diesels may no longer have orange glow-plug lights on the dashboard, but the glow plugs themselves still exist, and will take a little longer to get the engine to starting temperature. Switch on and wait a few seconds before turning the starter.


If roads are icy, go steadily and make no sudden movements. Try and keep steering movements and gear changes as smooth as possible. Leave even more room than usual between yourself and other vehicles. If the vehicle in front is in a tricky situation – roundabout, incline, parked cars or whatever – give it room to perform the manoeuvre before you get there. If it needs to drop back and take a second run at it, it can only do so if you are not right up behind it. When it is clear of the obstacle, you can have a clear run yourself.

Put your headlights on and keep them on. Especially in dull conditions and when snow is actually falling, it is this, rather than a cloak of invisibility, that will protect you from half the disasters that occur in these conditions. See and be seen – idiotically simple, but so often forgotten.

Four wheel drive vehicles may have certain advantages, but are not idiot-proof. They can get stuck and they can slide off the road with the efficiency of any two wheel drive contraption. They will often slide further because they weigh more. Their main advantages are usually that they have decent ground clearance and sensible tyres. One of the main reasons modern cars get into trouble on snow and ice, apart from pilot error, is low-profile tyres.

If you are having difficulty getting sufficient traction to get away in a regular front wheel drive car, there are a couple of things you can try. The first one is not to fight the steering wheel. Be ready to avoid any obstacles, but let the front wheels find their own grip. If this fails, turn the wheels slightly from their current direction. This may pull the car round to a point where there is a better possibility of forward motion. Third possibility is to reverse into a better starting position. If the wheels are spinning freely on ice, try changing up a gear. Remember that a front wheel drive car can often pull you out of trouble by accelerating in your chosen direction rather than braking against a slide. This does not work with four, or rear wheel, drive vehicles.


In icy conditions, try to come to rest rather than stop. If you arrive at the stopping point and brake, you run the risk of sliding beyond it. Work on the basis that the car will have slowed to a point of  no-motion when you reach that point. Braking is the easiest way to lose control of the vehicle. If you think you might need to stop take the power off first. And do it as gradually as possible.

ABS, brake force distribution, and all sorts of other technical gismos can help, but they won’t necessarily save you if you were too close to the thing you are now trying to avoid – the vehicle in front being the obvious and most common of these. ABS retains some power of avoidance if you have somewhere else to go. It can’t be relied on to reduce stopping distances, and only works if you stamp your foot on the pedal and keep it there – the worst thing you can do in a non-ABS car.


Snow and ice provide a challenge for motorists, but in many parts of the world they are commonplace and do not cause everything to come to a standstill. We don’t have many chances to master them around here, but it can be done. The single biggest danger you will encounter in these conditions is other motorists – driving too close to you, forgetting to put their lights on, or failing to properly clear their vehicles before travelling. Make allowances for them.

Keep well out of their way when possible and you should be able to avoid being voted off  and come back next week.


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