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Page last updated at 11:42 GMT, Monday, 21 December 2009

By Heather Driscoll-Woodford
BBC Surrey

Car in snow in Carshalton
Only make journeys if they are completely necessary

Research has revealed that almost half of road users continue to make their journey, despite the weather forecast.

So although we all have been warned not to go out unless it is completely necessary, apparently many of us take no notice and hit the roads regardless.

And with the recent snowfall, we are all now regretting our decision, while swapping "horror" stories of cars behaving like Torvill and Dean.

But if we insist on getting in the car, how do we drive safely in ice and snow?

It was only as I was actually sliding sideways past my husband's family firm on Friday, that I realised I had no idea what to do about it.

Car on roundabuot
Stopping distances are ten times longer in ice and snow

I had tried to pull up outside his office on a steep hill covered in a sheet of ice, when my front wheel mounted the kerb and the back end of my car spun out into the road.

My brother-in-law rushed out and clung, somewhat foolishly it has to be said, to the front of their shop in order to protect the plate glass windows from being damaged!

But he needn't have worried, as I slid gracefully straight past, admittedly at a 90 degree angle to where I should have been.

And I did manage to wave reassuringly at him as I went by - which is all I could think of doing, having tried my brakes to no effect.

Thankfully, my vehicle eventually came to a halt, against a conveniently placed cable box on the pavement.

But it could have been worse. And almost was this morning, when my car didn't stop where I expected it to at a junction, but continued straight across the road.

Having finally arrived at work in one piece and swapped tales of driving problems we'd all experienced over the weekend with my colleagues, one thing became apparent.

None of us know how to drive properly in snow and ice.

And the consequences of being unprepared can be serious.

Motoring expert Andrew Shelley from Lovekyn Kia in Ewell says "Winter motoring requires extra vigilance and planning if you're to avoid an accident or breakdown."

"Too many motorists simply jump in their cars on chilly mornings and treat adverse weather conditions as an inconvenience. The reality is that without proper preparation and a change in driving style, the consequences of snow and ice can be fatal."

So what should you do to ensure you are prepared when the bad weather arrives?


Prepare your vehicle

  • Get up at least 10 minutes early to give you time to prepare the car .
  • Clear all windows of snow and ice using de-icer and a scraper - do not set off with just a tiny hole cleared in the windscreen.
  • Check the roof for snow before you drive - it can slip down over the windscreen and obscure your view.
  • Use a cigarette lighter to warm a key for a frozen lock. Don't breathe on the lock, as the moisture will condense and freeze.
  • Besides an ice scraper and de-icer, it's worth carrying a mobile phone with fully charged battery, torch, first-aid kit, tow rope, blankets, warm coat and boots, jump leads, snow shovel, warning triangle, an old sack or rug and water repellent spray.
  • Plan routes to favour major roads which are more likely to have been gritted.
  • Put safety before punctuality when the bad weather closes in. While it's always a good idea to allow extra time in winter for your journey, drivers must accept the inevitability of being late for work if they are caught up in an unexpected delay.

Driving in snow and ice

  • If your tyres are making virtually no noise this could be a sign you're driving on ice.
  • If your vehicle skids, depress the clutch and turn the steering wheel into the direction of the skid. When the vehicle straightens steer along the road. Don't brake - it will just lock up your wheels and you'll skid further.
  • Stopping distances are ten times longer in ice and snow.
  • Gentle manoeuvres are the key to safe driving.
  • Reduce your risk of skidding by reducing your speed, too much power is often the source of problems in snow and ice.
  • Wear comfortable, dry shoes: cumbersome, snow-covered boots will slip on the pedals.
  • Select second gear when pulling away, easing your foot off the clutch gently to avoid wheel-spin.
  • Try to maintain a constant speed, choosing the most suitable gear in advance to avoid having to change down while climbing a hill.
  • When driving downhill, choose third or fourth gear to prevent skidding.
  • Always apply brakes gently.
  • 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. Once on the move again, try not to stop until you reach firmer ground.

Driving an automatic

The AA has the following advice for drivers of automatic vehicles:

"If you have an automatic, then under normal driving conditions (motorways, etc) it's best to select 'Drive' and let the gearbox do the work throughout the full gear range.

In slippery, snowy conditions you can make driving much safer by selecting '2', which limits the gear changes and also makes you less reliant on the brakes.

Many modern autos have a 'Winter' mode which locks out first gear to reduce the risk of wheel spin. Check the handbook if you're not sure."


Email me at surrey@bbc.co.uk and tell me how you have found driving in Surrey in the last few days. Have you had trouble or are you happy to drive in icy conditions?

While I sympathise with those who have employers who don't care about the welfare of their staff, having attempted to drive on even flat icy roads, I think it is madness to go out at the moment.

If it is not possible to be sure of stopping at a junction why would you risk your own life and vehicle, and those of others? Unfortunately, most drivers do not take the advice printed on these web pages, I have seen a 4 x 4 driving at normal speed skid into a ditch, fortunately without damaging anyone or anything else.

Recently two schoolchildren were hospitalised because a vehicle skidded into them. Some people genuinely have to go out - ambulance drivers for example, but the fewer vehicles on the road the better.

Stay at home, and tell your employer you should not be expected to go against the advice of the emergency services. I only get paid if I go to work, and can't afford to lose out, but it would cost me a lot more than a day's work if I was injured or damaged my car and lost my no claims bonus.

Christine Mcnamara

Unfortunately driving instructors do not teach people how to drive in these weather conditions.

Our youngest daughter, aged 30 next week, gave my husband a lift on Saturday and he was giving her advice as to how to deal with the icy conditions and she was amazed that she could drop down the gears, put the car in first and come to a safe halt without having to touch the brakes.

She was quite reluctant to give it a try at first but my husband told her to trust him and she managed perfectly well. She was also insistent that her car wouldn't pull away in second gear, whereas it did it quite happily once she took the plunge to try it.

We appreciate that a lot of cars have ABS these days and engines/brakes etc are much more efficient now, but my daughter's car does not have ABS and my husband is happy that he has given her these tips on driving in ice and snowy conditions. It is a pity that driving schools do not teach people to use engine braking and to pull away in second gear on the ice. Perhaps with a little more knowledge, there wouldn't be so many accidents in the bad weather.

Pamela Kitt, Wallington

I have to say I'm impressed with your attempts to give more than 'take food and blankets'! After driving uphill past abandoned 4 wheel drive utility vehicles and 'Chelsea tractors' in my diesel estate, it's apparent that people desperately need more than a little decent advice.

As an old hand at driving very effectively in bad conditions I thought I'd give you some practical extras.

First of all you need weight over the driving wheels- as much as possible. If you car has a front engine and front wheel drive you have a big advantage over rear wheel drive/front engine.

For the former, try to lighten the weight over the un-driven wheels by pushing the front passenger set back and putting as much weight as possible in the front footwell and other items on the seat, this can make a big difference.

The worst cars for snow and ice are probably light, front engined, rear wheel drive vehicles. In this case have any passengers sit in the back.

Fill the boot/load space with as much weight as you can - ideally, bags of sand or gravel etc. (on an old blanket!). This will make a startling difference to traction.

There is NO substitute for skill. Try to be aware of the car's movement over the ground and the amount of force trying to make the tyres loose grip; it's good to have an idea of how well they are sticking to the road- or not.

The worst surface is probably black ice that's beginning to melt, in fact any icy/ packed snow above freezing point can be very slippery.

If the temp. is comfortably below freezing, surfaces have more grip, sometimes not much different to dry tarmac but it has to be very cold (rare in the UK) for this. The difference between hard-packed, untreated and gritted snow on the same stretch of highway in below-freezing conditions can be huge if the snow is deep- around 6". The gritted part can be FAR slippier.

You don't need a huge amount of experience to dramatically improve your bad whether driving but like anything else, the more the better.

John Britton

I went to my local gym in Egham, Surrey, about 1.5 miles away from where I live, at 8pm this evening. There was no sign of snow at this point. When I came out at 10pm, the car park was covered in a light dusting of snow. However as I started my short journey home, the conditions got worse.

I drove home slowly, at no more than 15 miles an hour - it's interesting to know that there are still lunatics on the road in those conditions, as I still got overtaken despite the poor conditions.

I got to the bottom of Egham Hill on the A30 and it was here that I had the worst driving experience of my life. My car got stuck.

I have a Mazda MX5 which is rear wheel drive, and suddenly the back wheels started spinning and the front of my car slowly swung out. I dipped the clutch and steered back into the skid. But the snow building up behind my wheels was preventing me from moving. The cars behind me seemed to be struggling too. I was petrified - in fact at one point I was shaking so hard that I couldn't control my hands and feet so had to put the handbrake on and get my breath back for a few minutes.

I considered abandoning my car, like the cars I had seen on the news a couple of weeks ago. But you can't exactly leave your car in the middle of the road, on a steep hill, on the A30, while you trudge home. I also thought I was going to cry, but stopped myself as I told myself not do to anything which would stop me getting me home.

So I concentrated on my destination, and carried on going. I found a technique where I would slowly lift the clutch, rev the car really hard, then dip the clutch. This seemed to push me forward slowly, if not in a straight line, but at least I was going up the hill. Eventually I got up past the steepest part.

I still managed to get overtaken by a Vauxhall Corsa though.

When I eventually got home, I had trouble getting the car on our driveway. A man stopped on the other side of the road to watch. He asked if I wanted help, and guided me on exactly how to control the car, whether to go forward / backwards, rev high / low, steer / don't steer. I eventually got the car on the drive but wouldn't have been able to without him.

The kindness of this stranger, who didn't have to stop and help, was overwhelming. It seems situations like these just bring out the good in people. I guess we're all in it together.

I have learnt not to go out in the snow unless you have a car which can cope. I was unlucky and got stuck while I was out - I knew the snow was coming but I thought it would just be nothing more than a minor inconvenience. I will never think this way again, and I would urge others with the same attitude as I had, to think twice about going out.

A Wallace

I live in Banstead in Surrey which is always badly hit by weather as we are a bit higher than most.

I also drive a 4x4 Freelander as we have dogs and horses and are often driving across fields etc. Today, despite driving as slowly as possible and as carefully as possible, my car slid on some ice, moved sideways downhill in a country lane, swiftly turned through 180 degrees and slid backwards, at speed, downhill, before crashing to a halt in a bush atop a bank.

We then had to carefully manoeuvre the car to face the right way, while still slipping all over the road.

Thankfully no-one was hurt, I even had time to say 'brace yourself girls!' as we slid out of control! I have been driving for over 30 years, was driving at approx 5 miles per hour, in a vehicle equipped with better traction than most cars, and applying all of the safety tips I have learnt over the years when driving in snowy conditions.

Both of my daughters have been berated by their respective places of work for not attempting to drive in. They are both competent drivers but have little or no experience of driving in the current conditions, and we have no public transport alternative. Surely the economy won't come crashing down for the sake of a day's snow absence?

My girls are hard workers, who are fully employed and put in the effort they should and more - I am angry at employers who put them under this sort of pressure. These are extreme conditions and should be viewed as such. Accidents can be avoided if people behave sensibly.

Lynne Porter

Unfortunately, most of us don't have the luxury of staying at home. Employers don't take kindly to staff taking days off because of the weather.

After the great storm of 1987 the police advised people to stay off the roads unless they were emergency workers. My employer treated those of us who had not 'made an effort' to get in to work as being work-shy and having no loyalty to the company. I was lucky because I got paid for the day; friends working elsewhere did not.

Plus, a few years ago I stayed late at work to allow colleagues who lived far from the office to go home early as heavy snow began to fall. By the time I left work the buses were stopped or badly delayed and I had to trudge the 6 miles home through slippery snow. I was exhausted by the time I got home.

But the next morning, arriving a few minutes late due to the disruption to the bus network, my employer berated me saying that colleagues living further away had managed to get in on time. Of course, they were driving and the roads had been cleared by then.

So when the snow comes you grin and bear it and get in to work any way you can, regardless!

As far driving in the snow, I have held my driving license for over 30 years and the first time I have had to drive in icy conditions was in February this year. It scared me so much I cancelled a hospital appointment.

We don't have snow regularly enough to be properly prepared for it when it does come. Perhaps we should be compelled to carry tyre chains with our emergency triangles?

Catherine, Surbiton

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