Christmas is one of the most special times of the year; seeing friends, family reunions, social gatherings, holidays perhaps, festive decorations, etc. But it is also the coldest season and a time of frequent road journeys of different lengths. Driving in winter, under extreme cold conditions or its associated phenomena (rain, fog, wind, snow…), means being extra careful and taking the necessary precautions. Our vehicle must perform under these extreme weather conditions and be ready to encounter challenges such as a wet tarmac or extremely reduced visibility.
If you are going on the road these holidays or even if you are only taking short journeys, it is always very important to have your vehicle ready. Do you know if yours is? Here is some advice and tips:
1.- Is your car ready?
The most basic starting point is the tyres: These must be in optimal condition, have the adequate pressure and not be excessively worn (the tyre tread depth must never be less than 3-4 millimetres). Using purpose made winter tyres is a wonderful idea but if this is not an option we must always carry a set of tyre chains in the boot.
The battery is another vital point: the cold weather is not one of its best friends and if it is not in great condition it could leave us stranded at the worst time and place. This must be adequately charged and have clean terminals and we must also remember to carry a set of jump leads in the car. Think for how many years have you had your battery, its average lifespan is 4-5 years, if you have had yours for longer, be vigilant and consider replacing it as a precaution.
The mechanics of the vehicle is another essential aspect. It is important to have the condition of the spark plugs, internal engine cables, shock absorbers, and even the different insulations checked. If the car is due an oil change, it might be a good idea to consider one of low viscosity and of course the wipers must be in optimal condition with the screen wash deposit full.
Although we might be a bit sluggish about keeping our car very clean in winter in fear that some heavy rain might ruin the job, this is also important: dirt on the windscreen and lights reduces visibility considerably in adverse weather conditions. We should naturally make sure that all the lights are working correctly before going on the road.
Finally (although these precautions are not exhaustive just essential) don’t forget to kit up your car with some important items which might be vital in an emergency: a first aid kit, a charged mobile phone, water, warm clothes, a blanket and of course a full tank.
2.- On the road
Despite a seemingly clear day and a beautiful blue sky above us, winter makes the road unpredictable and we are more likely to encounter unexpected difficulties such as fog, a sudden storm or some of its consequences: snow, a wet floor, etc. The two most obvious recommendations are to slow down and drive carefully. A phone call to the traffic information services to enquire about road conditions will also save us from any nasty surprises.
If it is raining, or the road is wet and perhaps frozen at times, it is essential to increase the safety distance with the vehicle in front and to drive smoothly, avoiding any sudden breaking or steering movements, which might set the car out of control. Try also to keep overtaking and lane changes to the minimum necessary and increase your awareness of what is happening on the road around you.
If you come across a snow storm, all the above advice is ever more relevant, particularly that of driving slowly. Also you might want to drive using a lower gear (particularly useful on steep roads). Bear in mind that in these cases visibility might be extremely compromised and we should always consider if it might be more appropriate to stop and wait for weather conditions to improve.
3.- Under extreme conditions
Snow storm: if it finally becomes impossible to continue on our journey we must find a place to stop that is visible to others, and stay inside the car except to check, at periodic intervals, that the exhaust pipe doesn’t become obstructed. This could allow fumes to enter the cabin with fatal consequences. Keep the engine and heating on, opening the windows every now and then to allow for an exchange of air, have the radio on and try to keep awake. If you feel it is necessary to ask for help this is a good time to use that fully charged mobile phone and call the relevant emergency number.
Ice and rain: beware of the road displaying a shiny appearance; it might be a sign that it is frozen. The rain, although common at other times of year, could be more dangerous when accompanied by very low temperatures. Again, driving slowly, avoiding overtaking as much as possible, incrementing the safety distances and driving on lower gears (particularly when driving downhill) must all be considered. Be careful with puddles, they might be frozen or cause aquaplaning. If it is very windy a firm wheel grip and a high number of revolutions are very important.
Hail: we might not be so used to hail and this makes the road even more slippery than ice, effectively turning it into a sort of strip of frozen marbles. If you can avoid it, don’t drive under a hailstorm and if you get caught on it while on the road, the most advisable thing to do is to stop and wait for this to melt.