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10 essential winter safety tips for motorists

By Paul Connolly

With the nights drawing in and cold snaps commonplace, it’s time to think about how to protect yourself and other road users from the worst of winter.

The simple fact is that accidents are more common in bad weather, and it’s usually down to driver error, or driver failure to plan and to cope with conditions.

With this in mind, we’ve compiled a list of ten essential winter safety tips to keep you and others safe from inclement or even hazardous weather.

The tips below break down into three sections: advance planning, before you set off and how to behave when driving.

As always, common sense, care, courtesy and consideration are the key to safe driving.

1. Get a winter service/check

Your local garage or mechanic will offer winter service and check programmes. Give them a call.

Most if not all manufacturers offer similar services as well. Vauxhall, for example, has a 25-point winter health check, which includes checking steering and suspension among other key components, as well as topping-up vital fluids.

Volkswagen Winter Health Check includes an Express Visual Check. This 34-point inspection is intended to help identify any parts that require work or replacement for safety reasons. It will also point out areas of the car that may require attention at a later date.

A nice touch is that all the information gleaned from VW’s check is relayed to the customer via a simple ‘traffic light’ reporting system where green means an item is in full working order; yellow means it is safe and legal, but may need future maintenance, and red means immediate attention needed.

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2. Check pressures and tread depths

Tyre pressures and tyre tread depths are critically important for safe winter motoring thanks, of course, to the season’s often-difficult driving conditions.

Know your tyre pressures and check them regularly when filling up. Check tread depths with a special meter or even a 20p coin.

Consider winter or all-season tyres – they are very effective. Many winter tyre fitters will store your summer tyres for you until you need them.

3. Clean your car well

A good clean outside and underneath will remove grime that will affect the cosmetic, and indeed, mechanical, life of your car. This is especially true underneath. And doubly so, during winter when roads are salted and gritted. Remember to wash again at the end of winter.

4. Pack a proper winter car care kit

This really can be a life-saver on frozen early mornings or snowy journeys.

At the very least it should comprise of anti-freeze, de-icer, rubber care materials and a handy ice scraper. Make sure you’ve a chamois pad for helping keep windows from fogging up. With anti-freeze screen washers, follow precisely the manufacturers’ instructions to ensure it can cope with the worst conditions.

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5. Clear windows properly

We’ve all seem them - those drivers peering through a porthole on the windscreen because they can’t be bothered to properly clear the ice and snow. Be warned, this is not just a dangerous practice, it is also illegal. You must clear windows appropriately so you can have an all-round view.

Make sure you clear front, back and side windows properly, and your wing mirrors – and don’t forget to check the interior rear-view mirror in case it’s iced up as well.

6. Wake up early

The responsibility is on you to leave enough time to clear your car as explained in the last paragraph.

Setting the alarm 15 minutes early gives you time to clear the car before you set off. You will also be more relaxed and less likely to tailgate or drive in an inappropriate manner (see below).

On icy mornings, some people in a rush are tempted to pour boiled water from a kettle onto the windscreen, thinking this is an effective time-saving technique. Don’t – this can crack or even smash car glass!

Don’t leave your car running unattended to ‘warm up’ - this is illegal on a public highway and could invalidate your insurance if it was stolen.

7. Plan ahead

Take note of any danger or stress points on your route. Is there a mountain road, an untreated minor road or a hilly intersection where cars could slide past the lights?

Plan appropriately, and leave extra time for all stages of the journey. Wind-exposed bridges like the Foyle Bridge may be closed during storms.

In heavy snow you could get stuck: what will happen then? Have you a coat, hat, gloves and proper footwear? If you live remotely, a shovel and snow chains could be essential.

Make sure your mobile is fully charged, and pack a charging cable into your glovebox if your car has a USB or other power outlet.

Don’t be tempted to drive through volumes of water; cars aren’t built for this and can easily break down or get washed away.

Even with brilliant all-terrain vehicles like the Range Rover, make sure you know the vehicle’s wading depth before attempting to navigate flooded sections.

8. Watch for other road-users

Pedestrians and cyclists are at risk from vehicles always, but this is particularly so during high winds, heavy rain, ice and snow.

Slippery pavements or high winds can cause pedestrians to fall outwards, and cyclists may need to swerve to avoid obstacles or icy patches. High-sided trucks can be a danger to you in storms.

So, take extra care when you see other road users, and try and anticipate where you will encounter them on your journey.

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9. Leave extra stopping distance... and don't tailgate

You should by now be aware of the ‘Only a Fool breaks the Two–Second Rule’ slogan – which means if there is less than two seconds between you and the vehicle/bike in front then you are too close and at risk of a collision.

But you need to leave even more extra space in windy, rainy and poor-light conditions. In ice and snow, this rule lengthens considerably – consider leaving 20 seconds in very treacherous conditions. Never tailgate; it’s simply asking for trouble.

10. Drive slowly, carefully and smoothly

As well as distance between vehicles, there are lots of other good practice tips for driving in icy and snowy conditions.

Remember, a fallen tree or an accident could be just around the next corner.

In bad weather, particularly ice and snow, your car needs to be stable to be safe. So, don’t accelerate or brake sharply, corner gently, make smooth gear changes. Braking your car sends weight to the front end, so don’t turn while braking or you will encourage a slide ... potentially into the ditch or an oncoming vehicle or cyclist.

Drive in a higher gear than you may normally do; for example, 3rd instead of 2nd. This will reduce the risk of wheel-slip.

Smooth driving is controlled driving, which means a greatly reduced risk of accidents.

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