How to stay safe and avoid a breakdown this winter
Breakdowns are more common in the winter and road conditions can be really challenging, especially when snow and ice strike. Here's how to stay safe. No matter how well equipped your own car is, if a lorry jack-knifes ahead of you, you'll be stuck along with everyone else, so if you're driving, pack a winter emergency kit, just in case.
Batteries and electrics
Car batteries rarely last longer than five years, and there are extra demands on them in the winter, thanks to lights, heating and wipers.
Turn off electrical loads like lights, heated rear window and wipers before trying to start the engine. Use the starter in short five-second bursts. If the engine doesn't start quickly, wait 30 seconds between attempts. If you don't use your car often, give it a regular overnight trickle charge.
Antifreeze only costs a few pounds, but a frozen and cracked engine costs hundreds to repair. You need a 50-50 mix of antifreeze and water for the winter – this protects your engine down to -34C. Most modern cars use long-life antifreeze. Make sure you use the right type. Some types of antifreeze need changing after only two years. Check your service schedule.
A continuous squealing noise when you start up probably means the water pump’s frozen - it's the fan belt slipping on the pulley. Stop the engine straight away and let it thaw out. This could take days unless you can move it into a heated garage.
If your car overheats a few miles from home, it's likely that the radiator has frozen. Stop straight away so you don’t cause more serious damage.
- Clean your windscreen inside and out.
- Keep the windscreen and other windows clear of dirt, snow and stickers, to avoid a fine.
- Clear snow from the roof – it can fall onto the windscreen and block your view.
- Air-con demists the screen faster and reduces condensation.
- Replace worn or damaged wiper blades.
- Don’t leave your wipers on auto when you park up if there’s a risk of frost. If the blades freeze to the screen, you could damage the blades or wiper motor when you turn the ignition on.
- Use a suitable additive in your screenwash to reduce the chance of it freezing.
- Here's some more advice on how to keep a clear windscreen during the winter months.
- Make sure all lights are working and lenses clean.
- If the roads are really mucky you might have to clean your lights after every trip.
- Keep number plates clean, to avoid fines.
- If you have to clear snow, don’t forget the lights – front and back.
- You must use headlights when visibility is seriously reduced. If you use fog lights, remember to switch them off when visibility improves so they don’t dazzle other drivers or obscure your brake lights.
- We recommend at least 3mm of tread for the winter.
- Don't let air out of your tyres to get more grip – it doesn't work, and it’s unsafe.
- Only use snow chains if there’s enough snow to prevent damage to the road.
- Think about getting winter tyres or all-season tyres – these are made from a special rubber that gives better grip in cold, wet conditions.
More about tyres
- Need new tyres? Book a fitting and we’ll come to you.
- Buying winter tyres? Get a free fitting at your home or workplace.
Snow and ice
- Take it slow – with stopping distances 10 times longer, gentle manoeuvres are the key to safe driving in ice and snow.
- Wear comfortable, dry shoes for driving.
- Pull away in second gear, easing your foot off the clutch gently to avoid wheel-spin.
- Uphill – leave plenty of room or wait until it’s clear so you don’t have to stop part way up.
- Keep a constant speed and try to avoid having to change gear on the hill.
- Downhill – slow down before the hill, use a low gear and try to avoid braking. Leave as much room as you can to the car in front.
- If you have to use your brakes, apply them gently.
- If you drive an Automatic, check the handbook – some have a winter mode or recommend selecting ‘2’ in slippery conditions.
- If you do get stuck, straighten the steering and clear the snow from the wheels. Put a sack or old rug in front of the driving wheels to give the tyres some grip.
Before you set off
- Allow extra time for winter journeys.
- Try to get up at least 10 minutes early, to give you time to de-ice the car.
- Check fuel levels – keep at least a quarter of a tank in case of unexpected delay.
- Don't drive off like a tank-commander, with a tiny hole cleared in the windscreen.
- Clear all windows using a scraper and de-icer.
- Use a cigarette lighter to warm a key for a frozen lock.
- Plan routes to favour major roads, which are more likely to be cleared and gritted.
© AA – This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the Automobile Association www.aa.com.