Careful planning can significantly reduce the chances of having an accident while driving in icy conditions. Here will look at the basic things every driver can do to increase their odds of arriving safely when there is ice on the road. For a detailed look at the best driving techniques to apply in these conditions, there is an excellent article on the GEM Motoring Assist website, which can be found here.
Before embarking on a journey that will involve driving in icy conditions, it is always worth asking yourself if this is something you really need to do. With the potential for an accident being so much greater whenever there is ice on the road, the safest option may well be to either reschedule, or even to cancel, your trip. However, where you feel you have no option but to venture out onto potentially treacherous roads there are several measures you can take to increase your odds of a safe journey.
Whenever possible, aim to begin any journey around mid-morning, particularly if conditions are improving, as the majority of roads will be much easier to navigate around this time. A combination of the morning rush hour and a few hours of sunshine will have hopefully broken down the overnight ice and compacted snow down into slush. There should also be considerably less traffic on the roads at this time, meaning you are less likely to fall victim to someone else’s mistake.
Take a few moments to check you know where you are going. Make sure you have the required map, as well as the right details for your sat-nav. This is definitely not the time to be driving around lost. If you are familiar with your destination, mentally run through the route to see if it is possible to identify any potentially hazardous locations. For example, a bridge over a river at the bottom of a steep valley may well not be currently passable. Identifying such problems, and adjusting your route accordingly, can easily mean the difference between getting to your chosen destination and getting completely stuck.
Before setting off, it is worth checking online to see if the weather is deteriorating. It is also a good idea to tune into the local traffic news, to get the very latest on which roads are passable. For local journeys, make sure you have a mobile phone with you, as well as a warm coat and boots in case you get stuck. For longer journeys, you may want to add some extra supplies such as a blanket, a hot flask, a torch and enough food to tide you over for 24 hours. Where the journey will involve venturing into more remote areas, self-rescue equipment could prove indispensable such as a spade, tow rope and a pair of rudimentary ramps.
If you have access to a four-wheel-drive (4WD),vehicle then use it. You will still need to apply the same level of care as you would in a vehicle with only two driven wheels. Remember that the extra traction of a 4WD can still leave you stranded, and it will probably be somewhere far more remote than in a conventional car. It is also worth remembering that not all 4WD systems are created equally. The very best have a low ratio gearbox which make it far harder to get stuck, while the road orientated tyres on many 4WD vehicles mean they perform little better than a two-wheel drive in icy conditions.
A few moments looking over your vehicle can also pay dividends. Checking tyre pressures is an oft neglected chore, but even a difference of a few pounds of pressure between axles can cause the car to spin when there is ice on the ground. It is therefore worth investing in a good quality tyre pressure gauge. Keep it in the glove box and get into the habit of checking tyres regularly, including the spare. The next most important check to make is how much windscreen washer fluid is in the car. When there is salt on the road, the spray cannot be properly cleared by the wipers without additional fluid. A dirty windscreen paired with the low winter sun can be a lethal combination. Make sure the reservoir is topped up with a 50/50 mix, and consider keeping some in reserve in a child-proof bottle in the boot.
Most car batteries these days have a useful life of around 5 years. If the battery in your vehicle is approaching this age, it may be prudent to consider replacing it. A car battery will usually fail during colder weather as winter conditions are so much more testing for the device. Having the battery replaced by your local specialist is a very different experience to suddenly needing an emergency fitter to swap the unit at the side of the road in the snow.
With a properly maintained and serviced vehicle, a well planned route and a few extra safety items it should be possible to complete an absolutely necessary winter journey in safety. However, it is always worth bearing in mind that if you are in any doubt, it is safer to not go out!