How to protect yourself and your car this winter

  • 25/05/2017
Car batteries have to work extra hard in winter. Have it checked. (Getty)
Car batteries have to work extra hard in winter. Have it checked. (Getty)

Winter has already taken a grip on parts of the country taking many drivers by surprise, but steps can be taken to improve the odds in case winter weather tries to ruin your driving day, says RadioLIVE's motoring expert Dave Moore. 

Safety first - prepare yourself and your car

Consider fitting winter tyres, but if you can't afford them, have your summer tyres checked - a tyre expert's advice can be invaluable at this time of year. Winter driving means tyres should have plenty of remaining tread. Even when it's not icy or snowing, grip is at a real premium in winter conditions and a tyre with only the legal minimum tread depth displaces as much as 85 percent less water than a new tyre. If your tyres are on the edge of needing to be replaced, act now.

Have your air conditioning serviced. An effective air con system will demist windscreens much more quickly, helping visibility. Have the health of your battery checked. Batteries have to work extra hard in the cold. Make sure your windscreen washer fluid is topped up with the correct concentration of screenwash. Windscreens get particularly dirty in the winter months and screenwash will help prevent the liquid from freezing. Also have your coolant checked.

Always carry a survival pack in the car. The pack should include food, drink, extra-warm clothes and a blanket. You might never know how welcome that old overcoat will be if things go badly on a winter drive.

Carry chains and some old sacks or bits of carpet. These can prove a real face-saver when you get stuck in mud and rain, as well or snow and ice. If the unthinkable happens and you get stuck without some old sacks in the boot or chains, try reducing your tyre pressures. This gives you more grip by putting more tyre tread in contact with the ground.

Practice fitting chains a few times before you leave home, as it's better to make mistakes in your driveway than with frozen fingers in a distant lay-by.

Ensure your phone battery is fully charged, and you have an in-car charger. Your phone could be your only safe contact for recovery. Carry a shovel in case you need to dig yourself out of trouble.

An in-car phone charger could be a lifesaver in a tricky situation (Getty)
An in-car phone charger could be a lifesaver in a tricky situation (Getty)

Driving in snow and ice

Adjust your driving style to the conditions. Be sensible in the rain, snow and ice and leave greater following distance, imagine major hazards all the time. Keep your lights on - dip, don't dazzle.

While ice and snow are obvious hazards, the invisible threat of black ice can cause the biggest problems. A tell-tale clue that you are on black ice is when all goes quiet in the car and you suddenly can't hear any tyre noise. If you find yourself in this situation, don't brake or make any sudden steering inputs. Ease off the accelerator and proceed slowly and smoothly.

Know your car. This may sound daft, but it is essential to know whether your car is a front, rear-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicle so you can react accordingly in icy conditions. 

On a slippery road if you approach a corner too quickly or even at what you thought was an appropriate speed, there is a good possibility that your car will slide. This is even more likely if you also brake harshly while taking the corner. You'll know you're sliding if you turn the steering wheel but there is no response and the car continues on ahead. This is a classic front wheel skid. If this happens, remove your foot from the accelerator, as this shifts the weight balance of the car forwards and helps the tyres find grip. Do not use the brake.

The stopping distance for a car travelling at 50km/h is more than twice as long in icy weather as it is in normal conditions, so it's really important to keep a greater distance between you and the car ahead.

One universal truth for driving in slippery conditions is to accelerate, brake and change gear smoothly, gently and with care so precious traction is less likely to be broken. Another universal truth is that all-wheel-drive does NOT preclude the use of winter tyres and chains. There are thousands of once-stranded motorists and even 4x4 experts who may once have thought so, but no longer do.

If you suddenly can't hear any tyre noise, watch out - you could be on black ice (Newshub)
If you suddenly can't hear any tyre noise, watch out - you could be on black ice (Newshub)

Hints and tips

  • Lights can quickly become caked in winter and the range of your car's headlamps can be reduced greatly when road grime accumulates on them. This includes lights on both the front and rear clusters and indicators. Clean them regularly, even mid-journey in severe conditions, so you can see and be seen. 
  • An ice-scraper is one of the most valuable winter tools to keep in your glovebox. They are less than $5 from an auto supplier. Their rubber blades work just as well on dewy screens. Keep it in the car. I've already used mine three times this year on early mornings to scrape the front, rear and side windows of my car. By failing to use a proper de-icer and ice scraper, motorists can cause permanent damage to their cars, notably by scratching glass or by damaging the surrounding rubber seals. Don't just leave a slot to look through. Clear all the windows and the side-mirrors - you'll need them even more in winter than usual.
  • Never use very hot water to melt ice from the windscreen, as you put it at risk of cracking or shattering due to the extreme change in temperature. Warm water at most is advisable. 
  • Never think that all-wheel-drive precludes the need for chains. Having a set of winter tyres to swap into at the beginning of the season is a good idea, but they aren't as effective as chains.
  • For all that, one good bit of winter driving advice that's very easy to follow is to consider whether your journey is really necessary at all.

Dave Moore is a motoring expert who joins Mark Sainsbury for Car Talk every Tuesday on Morning Talk.

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